Black Lives Matter and NASCAR's Confederate flag ban front and center as they head to Homestead
Sunday's Dixie Vodka 400 will mark the first midseason race in NASCAR history at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It's the first time the track hasn't been run as the Cup Series season finale since 2002, a second historic scheduling moment in a week for this sport. On Wednesday night, NASCAR held the first night race in its 71-year history of competing at Martinsville Speedway.
But it's a different type of history stock car racing is making this week that's put the news of Martinsville and Homestead on the backburner. In just seven days, NASCAR's pursuit of social justice and outward support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has thrust them into politics, polarized opinions of race fans, and culminated in banning the confederate flag from race events.
This titanic shift has been swift and historic for a sport that, as I wrote this week, has a complicated history on race. On Sunday, before the start of the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, officials parked the cars on the frontstretch for "30 seconds of listening." NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the competitors with a clear message: the sport needed to change.
"Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry," Phelps said. "Demanding to be heard. The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country. It has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change.
"Our sport must do better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice."
One day later, the sport's lone African-American full-time driver, Bubba Wallace, made an appearance on "CNN Tonight With Don Lemon." Wallace said the next step for NASCAR to support the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter protest movement sweeping across America would be to ban the confederate flag.
"No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race," Wallace said. "So it starts with confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them."
By Wednesday, they were gone. NASCAR released a statement in which they claimed the flag's presence "runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry."
By then, the sport was raging in controversy. They've received a good deal of support across the country; Cup drivers have also come together similar to their "listen and learn" video released June 7.
But not everyone has been on board. Fans have been outspoken with negative comments; while NASCAR's Twitter following has increased, several writers and personalities involved in the sport have seen theirs plummet. Gander & RV Outdoors Truck Series full-timer Ray Ciccarelli then caused an uproar when he announced his team would close after the 2020 season as a result of NASCAR’s decision.
"It's just irritating because I feel like you're being told what you can and can't do," Ciccarelli said to Frontstretch.com. "Just slightly irritating, to be truthful with you."
Others' criticism has been more severe, pointing to the flag as a symbol of southern heritage NASCAR is now denouncing. This group claims they'll be using their pocketbooks to send a message, turning off the television and refusing to attend future NASCAR-related events.
"Just throwing a pity party," Wallace said of those critics after making another appearance on Lemon's show. "I'm excited about the change. I wish fans could come back ASAP so we can see the demographic, who shows up, what shows up. I just want to hear what they have to say."
What happens now? Some feel the fans criticizing the sport now will be back as the sting of the decision fades.
"Look, how many people said they were going to move to Canada when [Donald] Trump won the election, and how many of them really did?" three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip told The New York Times. "Everybody makes idle threats but very few people that I know follow through."
We're about to find out. Sunday marks the first time NASCAR will allow a limited number of fans back at the racetrack. Next week at Talladega Superspeedway, tickets are expected to be sold to 5,000 fans in one of the nation's most conservative enclaves. A lot of factors will go into how many get sold, but if some of them don't? It's hard not to point to recent decisions as a potential factor.
It's with this backdrop NASCAR heads down to Homestead. Can there be a shift back to on-track action after a week's worth of politics?
Dixie Vodka 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Homestead, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex took control late during Wednesday night's race at Martinsville Speedway and pulled away for his first win of 2020. It's also the first with new crew chief James Small after Cole Pearn surprised many with an early retirement effective the end of the 2019 season.
"Cole leaving is big shoes to fill, there's no question," Truex said after the win, reminding everyone the two engineers had worked together for years. "[James has] been doing a really good job. He's been really making smart decisions. He's prepared. He's a great leader. Our guys look up to him. I feel like he hasn't missed anything."
Small certainly stood out on a night the other Toyotas struggled at Martinsville Kyle Busch was the next-best Camry, finishing one lap down in 19th. Now up to fourth in points, will this be the springboard for the 2017 Cup Series champion to go on a summer roll?
Who's at the Back: Aric Almirola
So much is made about Stewart-Haas Racing's Clint Bowyer being in a contract year. But what about his teammate Almirola? The No. 10 team had three straight front-row starts under NASCAR's quirky COVID-19 qualifying system where they got lucky in a random draw. In today's stock car world, where track position is key, that should at least have resulted in a handful of top-10 finishes.
Instead? Almirola racked up two DNFs in three starts, sandwiched in between a 17th-place result to plummet to 14th in the point standings. He's just 16 points from falling out of the playoff picture entirely in a year where heavyweights like Brad Keselowski lurk as potential free agents.
I think the intro says it all this week. Rookie John Hunter Nemechek did pick up a seven-race primary sponsorship from Death Wish Coffee but most sponsorship and racing-related news has been overshadowed due to NASCAR's other decisions.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Wins in Martin Truex Jr.'s last six short track starts after starting his Cup Series career 0-for-80.
DNFs for Timmy Hill in 11 starts this season, including two straight after fuel pump problems at Martinsville to lead the series. Hill's No. 66 team of MBM Motorsports is in their first full season running at the Cup level.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Sure, the Championship 4 is no longer being decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But last year's quartet of Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch should be solid bets to succeed once again. You'll only have the ability to use two of them on your roster in most daily fantasy formats, so pick wisely! Keep in mind all except Hamlin have won championships here through race wins since 2014. Even then, Hamlin's no slouch; he earned his fourth straight pole here and has a career average finish of 10.5.
Matt Kenseth has had a miserable run as of late since coming out of retirement to run the No. 42 with Chip Ganassi Racing. Homestead, though could be a place where Kenseth finally turns a disappointing 2020 around. He had six straight top-10 finishes here, including with Roush-Fenway Racing in a limited role in 2018, before skipping the 2019 race altogether. Plus, he's driving for a program in CGR that was a perennial contender at this track with Kyle Larson. Don't miss out.
Ryan Newman shouldn't be counted out, either after his best run (12th at Martinsville) since returning to the sport after a horrifying Daytona 500 crash. Newman had a top-10 run last season at Homestead (seventh) with the same No. 6 car Kenseth contended with the 2018 version of this event. Back up to 23rd in the standings, Newman still has an outside shot at the playoffs and is beginning to showcase the consistency that got him there in 2019.
Bubba Wallace doesn't have much Homestead success to speak of. That'll make him a cheap play in most fantasy formats and this time around, I think it's worth the risk. All the media attention this week translated well for Wallace at Martinsville as the No. 43 team posted an 11th-place finish. That's his second top-11 run in three races as the sport's lone African-American full-timer has risen to 20th in the season standings.
Keep an eye out for Daniel Suarez to potentially have a decent showing. He was 14th with the No. 41 SHR car last year and his current ride, the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Toyota, was 29th with a first-time Cup driver in Drew Herring. Suarez can do better and bring some position differential points along with his 37th-place starting spot in the field.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the way at Homestead with 4/1 odds while Martin Truex Jr. (5/1) and Kyle Busch (11/2) slot just behind according to vegasinsider.com. Chase Elliott, at 7/1, is next on the list.
Looking for a longshot? How about Matt Kenseth, coming out of nowhere, sitting at 50/1.
What I Think
Kyle Busch gets his act together and wins his first race of 2020 after a miserable race at Martinsville. But expect a crazier race than normal here on a track expected to be hot and slick during the waning hours of Sunday afternoon.