Through cri­sis, con­tro­ver­sies, NASCAR keeps rolling on

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — The one thing NASCAR has al­ways got­ten right is its abil­ity to keep the wheels turn­ing. In cri­sis or coro­n­avirus, the show finds its way to a race track and keeps plug­ging along.

That has never been in doubt, at least not since 2001 when Dale Earn­hardt died in a crash on the last lap of the Day­tona 500. The next seven days were a blur of grief and out­rage. Yet Earn­hardt’s fu­neral was Thurs­day and ev­ery­body made it to Rock­ing­ham in time for Fri­day prac­tice.

The de­ter­mi­na­tion to race has been NASCAR’s great­est strength in the most tu­mul­tuous of times and that cer­tainly in­cludes the past sev­eral weeks.

A garage door pull­down rope fash­ioned as a noose was found in the garage stall of Bubba Wal­lace at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way in Alabama. The FBI de­ter­mined it had been there since last Oc­to­ber and Wal­lace — who two weeks ear­lier helped prod NASCAR to ban the Con­fed­er­ate flag at its races — was not the tar­get of a hate crime. Still, the at­ten­tion was un­usu­ally glar­ing — for Wal­lace, for NASCAR and for fans who feel they are de­fend­ing South­ern her­itage, flag and all.

So NASCAR raced. By Mon­day, a full seven days af­ter NASCAR stood in sup­port be­hind Wal­lace dur­ing the na­tional an­them at Tal­ladega, three more Cup Se­ries races had been com­pleted. The con­ver­sa­tion moved away from the noose, the ban and ra­cial equal­ity — for bet­ter and for worse.

There was chat­ter about NASCAR’s un­prece­dented triple­header at Po­cono over the week­end, which also saw the Cup Se­ries run con­sec­u­tive points-pay­ing races. Kevin Har­vick and Denny Ham­lin went 1-2 in the first race, then flipped the order Sun­day in what could be a preview of a stir­ring cham­pi­onship bat­tle.

Har­vick, the points leader, and Ham­lin, the Day­tona 500 win­ner, have seven com­bined vic­to­ries through 15 races and both have played a sig­nif­i­cant role in NASCAR’s sur­vival dur­ing the pan­demic. Ham­lin was a key player in the iRac­ing craze dur­ing NASCAR’s 10-week shut­down and has tire­lessly re­mained front and cen­ter for the sport. Har­vick re­sumed a na­tional ra­dio show while rep­re­sent­ing him­self as a se­ries cham­pion.

Both can feel the toll of this topsy-turvy sea­son, in which NASCAR was one of the first ma­jor sport­ing leagues to re­turn to com­pe­ti­tion. Rou­tines have been up­ended and re­placed by a fren­zied sea­son of one-day shows, largely with­out fans — no prac­tices, no qual­i­fy­ing and nine rain­in­ter­rupted races, all in the shadow of the noose in­ci­dent at Tal­ladega.

“It’s been a unique time,” Ham­lin said. “Ev­ery­thing is just dif­fer­ent. The way that we work our weeks, week­ends, ev­ery­thing is dif­fer­ent now. You’re try­ing to adapt to that. Then we have the whole thing go­ing on with Ge­orge Floyd. That sparked con­ver­sa­tions and protests. We had the in­ci­dent, we thought the in­ci­dent, with Bubba.

“I just want to get to rac­ing and talk­ing about rac­ing. It’s dif­fi­cult to ask us to be able to com­part­men­tal­ize all this stuff. We’re race car driv­ers. To ask us our stance on pub­lic is­sues and things like that, we’re not al­ways that good at it. We don’t al­ways say the right thing.”

Less than three months ago, star driver Kyle Lar­son used the N-word dur­ing an iRac­ing event. He was sus­pended by NASCAR, lost his job with his team and is cur­rently rack­ing up wins on sprint car tracks. That seems long ago now, but it was an­other con­tro­versy in a string of them.

Will the con­ver­sa­tion about race fade? No one is sure, just like no one is sure whether a spon­sor will step up for Wal­lace’s un­der­funded Richard Petty Motorsport­s team.

Ei­ther way, NASCAR will just keep mov­ing, on to In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way this week­end for an­other first: The hec­tic reschedul­ing of rac­ing means NASCARand IndyCar will share the fa­cil­ity for the first dou­ble­header fea­tur­ing the na­tion’s two big­gest auto rac­ing se­ries.

Har­vick, who in 2001 went from a Busch Se­ries driver to Earn­hardt’s re­place­ment overnight, has never not been part of NASCAR’s non­stop grind. Per­haps at times its an­noyed him, worn him down, even made him an­gry. Right now, be­ing able to race is a gift not to be un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated.

“I think our races have had a pos­i­tive im­pact on the motorsport­s com­mu­nity ev­ery week. This was our 11th race since we’ve come back,” Har­vick said. “Our in­dus­try has just done a great job, re­ally been the leader in try­ing to help other sports fig­ure out how they’re go­ing to get back on track.”

Go­ing rac­ing is what NASCAR does best.


Po­cono Race­way in Long Pond, Penn­syl­va­nia held an un­prece­dented triple­header Sun­day. All to­taled, there were four NASCAR races, in­clud­ing two in the Cup Se­ries, over the week­end.


Bubba Wal­lace has gar­nered sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from NASCAR in re­cent weeks.

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