COVID-19 once brought NASCAR to a screeching halt. Not anymore.
March 29, 2020 was the original date of the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. NASCAR chose to postpone that event due to the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the country. On that day, there were 341 total coronavirus cases reported in all of Texas.
Almost four months later, on July 19, NASCAR will be holding the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. In Tarrant County, where the racetrack is, there were 510 COVID-19 cases reported just there on Friday. But the full race weekend is scheduled to press on with fans in the stands for Sunday's Cup event.
The decision follows a NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway where up to 20,000 people were in the stands. Chase Elliott won the race, then bumped fists over the catchfence with excited supporters while explaining the importance of having them back.
"To me," he said Wednesday. "Tonight felt like an event again. I feel like we've been missing that piece for a couple months. It just felt really good to get NASCAR back. I mean, NASCAR is built on the fans. Once the race starts, it's hard to engage with them because you can’t hear them. Before a race, the atmosphere was energetic again. I felt like the vibe was back."
Along with it came NASCAR's all-too-familiar entry back into the political fray this season. As COVID-19 cases rage across the country, the sport remains content allowing individual track owners to decide whether or not fans should be in the stands. And the race will go on at Texas despite it being one of the hardest-hit states in the country in recent weeks.
Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage is reminding fans to wear their masks this weekend. Fans at Bristol presented mixed reviews on the experience, while NFL running back Alvin Kamara tweeted his approval.
Ultimately, the outcome of NASCAR's push to put fans in the stands will hinge on how many, if any, people get sick attending an event at their facilities. You've got to give them credit; the sport went nearly two months without a driver testing positive before Jimmie Johnson's asymptomatic result took him out of a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They were one of the first major sports to come back successfully during this virus and their stick-and-ball counterparts still haven’t proven they can do it, too.
But NASCAR has also gone out of its way to set an example. All drivers, crew members and officials in the garage must be masked and social distancing at all times. What message does it send to them when fans wind up maskless in the stands, taking risk into their own hands after the race is over? What message does it send at all when Texas is being pushed to pause or roll back reopening, yet tens of thousands of people are being allowed to gather? Different strokes for different folks wasn't exactly the equality the sport is preaching during its social justice movement in recent weeks.
Texas, in all likelihood, will be one of the last races with fans at NASCAR events. (New Hampshire Motor Speedway, on Aug. 2, is also scheduled to allow them.) There's no question the sport and the track could use some extra cash and the emotional lift by fans entering their 1.5-mile, sprawling facility that can seat well over 100,000.
Let's just hope they don't pay the price for it.
O'Reilly Auto Parts 500
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Cole Custer
Custer, a Cup Series rookie, pulled off a phenomenal late-race restart to score the upset of the season in last Sunday's race at Kentucky Speedway. Restarting sixth, he jumped to the outside and leapfrogged some of the sport's best drivers on the outside line. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and then Martin Truex Jr. were no match as Custer became the first rookie to win since Justin Haley last July in the rain-shortened Daytona event.
The first five laps Custer led in his Cup career came in that Quaker State 400. With it, the entire NASCAR playoff race is shaken up as he's the first driver outside the top 16 in points to win a race in 2020.
Who's at the Back: Ryan Preece
Transmission troubles for Preece at Kentucky had him finishing dead last in the 38-car field. It's left him a distant 30th in the season standings, just 19 ahead of Daniel Suarez who missed the season-opening Daytona 500. Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman have blown by him despite missing multiple races early in the season. And only Timmy Hill, running with an underfunded program, has more DNFs than Preece at this point in the year. Will the sophomore slump have an effect on his 2021 employment with JTG-Daugherty Racing?
Chase Elliott won arguably the biggest race of his career Wednesday night with his triumph in the sport's All-Star Race at Bristol. Elliott dominated the latter portions of the race and proved untouchable in his No. 9 Chevrolet, making up for a missed Bristol opportunity earlier this year when he tangled with Joey Logano in the closing laps. Elliott's win was worth $1 million.
NASCAR has handed down its first punishment for violation of COVID-19 protocols. The NASCAR Xfinity Series team owned by Jeremy Clements' family was fined $10,000 due to the "failure to comply with NASCAR's COVID-19 Event Protocol Guidelines and/or instructions from NASCAR including screenings, social distancing, compartmentalization, and use of required personal protective equipment, etc." Clements and his team will be allowed to race this weekend.
Bubba Wallace added a new backer this week as his Richard Petty Motorsports outfit keeps searching for financial support. The Cash App signed a multi-year deal and will serve as the main sponsor on the No. 43 Chevrolet for five races later in the 2020 season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career Cup starts for Kevin Harvick once he takes the green flag Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Average finish for Harvick this season, leading all Cup Series drivers. Denny Hamlin is a distant second at 9.4.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to pick against Kevin Harvick at Texas, especially considering the circumstances. The three-time consecutive fall race winner is making his 700th career start and has been on fire in recent weeks, scoring two wins and four straight top-5 finishes. Keep him off the roster at your own peril.
Joey Logano has been struggling in recent weeks, a slump that's likely to lower his price in daily fantasy formats. Pick him. The 2018 series champion has five top-5 finishes in his last eight Texas starts, including 284 laps led. Expect the 2014 winner of this event to get back on track down in Fort Worth.
Aric Almirola is sitting on the pole at a racetrack where he was a surprise second in the Cup Series event last fall. Add in 128 laps led at Kentucky last Sunday, a streak of six top-10 finishes and it's clear he's become a "must-add" to your roster for this Texas race.
Clint Bowyer might be an inexpensive add as a member of the Stewart-Haas Racing organization surging in recent weeks. Yes, Bowyer hasn't had the same level of success as his teammates, but he was second and 11th at this track last year. No practice may mean he'll pick up right where he left off in the No. 14 Ford.
I'm going to go deep down the list and pick out Daniel Suarez, last year's back-to-back third-place finisher at Texas. No, he's not going to get you a top-10 finish or even a top 15. But Gaunt Brothers Racing, in its first full-time season running Cup, has been improving in recent weeks. A 20th-place finish at Indianapolis two weeks ago shows there's potential for a solid finish with the No. 96 Toyota.
Rookies, rookies, rookies. Take your pick here. Last week's winner Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick all offer great value and varying levels of success at this facility. And don't forget about John Hunter Nemechek! He was 21st at this track last fall in his first Cup start with Front Row Motorsports.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick is by far the favorite to win in a year that's seen parity at the top. His 3/1 odds at Texas are half that of Kyle Busch and defending race winner Denny Hamlin. They're next on the list at 6/1.
Do you think Cole Custer can go back-to-back? If so, he's sitting out there as a longshot with 100/1 odds.
What I Think
I think this race is setting up nicely for Kevin Harvick to return to the front. But don't count out Aric Almirola; he's itching for a win and has been knocking on the door these last few weeks.