After a challenging 2020 season, NASCAR's chief looks ahead and shares his favorite Jimmie Johnson memory
After the sport shut down in March, NASCAR constantly drew and redrew its schedule, going through dozens of iterations before settling on one that allowed it to complete all 36 points-paying races. That required midweek races, doubleheaders, saying hello to a new venue (Daytona road course), and skipping some longstanding ones (Sonoma, Watkins Glen).
As if that weren't enough, in 2020 the sport also endured controversies that in other years would have been the story of the year — from the noose at Talladega to Kyle Larson getting fired for using a racial slur to Jimmie Johnson missing a race after testing positive for COVID-19 and failing to qualify for the playoffs because of it in his final season.
There was good news, too. NASCAR's favorite son won the championship, one of the most famous athletes in the world announced he would become an owner and Bubba Wallace emerged as a star who could transcend the sport.
NASCAR has never had a year like it, and officials have to hope it never does again. NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke with Athlon Sports about weathering the 2020 storm, preparing for 2021, and drinking tequila with Jimmie Johnson.
Q&A with NASCAR President Steve Phelps
Athlon: On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being, "I could have run a marathon" and 10 being "my brain felt like oatmeal," how exhausted were you when you left the track after the season-ending race at Phoenix?
Steve Phelps: I was actually pretty exhilarated. (Earlier in the year) it was not physical exhaustion, it was mental. The uncertainty that existed in late March and April until we got to Darlington on the 17th of May — that was a very difficult stretch because there were so many things outside of your control. You can't plan for things that you don't know are going to happen. For us, (we wanted to) build the protocols, build the plan that will allow us to come back to racing safely in these communities for our own competitors, for the folks in the local community, for anyone who is at the local facility, that in that footprint, they would be safe. Phoenix was more a sense of relief. It was really exhilarating, and I was so proud of this industry, that the stated goal of getting in all 36 points-paying races... we did that.
Multiple-choice question. Darlington, midweek race. Lots of hype leading up to it. As the race is winding down, your most popular driver, Chase Elliott, is flipping the bird to Kyle Busch, your most hated, on live TV. A glorious moment for fans watching at home. Less so for NASCAR officials.
Are you thinking,
A. Chase, what are you doing?
B. Busch deserved it
C. Fans are going to love this
D. Crap, now I have to fine him
E. None of the above/Fill in the blank
(Laughs) I would probably say C, fans are going to love this. For us, it's really about the fans. Fans are the lifeblood of this sport. They're what makes it go. To me, raw emotion in competition is what makes NASCAR, NASCAR.
Having drivers be authentic to themselves and show emotion, that's a good thing. Flipping the bird, or getting out of the car and having a discussion, a heated discussion, fans love that. Look at the raw emotion Chase Elliott had winning the championship. Sheer joy on his face. Fans want that. There was a time (when critics said), these guys are vanilla. These guys aren't vanilla.
Jimmie Johnson's friends have told me some great stories about him. The good ones involved beer, the better ones involved tequila and the best ones involved both. What's your best Jimmie Johnson story?
I have a lot of them. Some of them involve beer and tequila, to be fair. Jimmie and I are both cyclists. We've spent a lot of time riding bikes together, which are special moments for me personally. His on-track moments are obviously extraordinary. Five championships in a row, seven overall, and he always did it with class. He always did it the right way. He's a class act on and off the racetrack. He proved that nice guys can finish first.
One of the first memories I have of Jimmie is his first championship. We used to have our banquet at the Waldorf (in New York City). Our communications people and his communications people, a pretty limited group, would eat in the kitchen. Afterward, Jimmie wanted to play Texas Hold 'Em and have some beers and have some tequila. Everyone put in a couple hundred bucks. I ended up winning. I donated the winnings — I think it was four or five grand — to the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. You would have thought I had given my house or my first child, the way he and Chani (Johnson's wife) were so appreciative. I was like, wow, that is amazing. That was the start of a really nice friendship with Jimmie and Chani.
Describe Bubba Wallace and the huge leap he seems to have taken in the last year. What has impressed you about him?
The way he handled himself in the last year. I think there's a significant amount of maturity that went on. He did it with grace and style and class. He could have gone in a direction that was really a dark one. He could have gone toe-to-toe with the haters. He took the high road, always. I think that was important for him to do. It made a lot of people become fans of his because of how he handled himself.
There was tremendous weight, sometimes the weight of the entire industry, on his shoulders. But he always did it with class. I was proud of him. When he tweeted, he had the right message, one of hope, one of love, one of welcoming. That's what the message always was. He didn't deviate off that message.
NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck wrote: "Getting this season completed as scheduled and potentially saving itself and its race teams in the process is NASCAR's single greatest achievement in its history, and nothing else comes close." Your thoughts?
I would say this is the single most difficult season this sport has faced, and the objectives we set out to achieve, we achieved. I'm incredibly proud of the industry. That's certainly high praise from Jeff. It was an extraordinary year, for sure.
What is your snapshot memory, where you looked around and thought, holy cow, I am smack in the middle of some historically crazy stuff right now?
It really starts with shutting down. Shutting down the races in Atlanta, that was the first one. That was the holy cow moment. We're in uncharted waters here, for sure. The next seminal moment to me, with a lot of hard work in between, was getting back to Darlington on May 17. To be the first major sport back was important.
To see the industry come together and do things it didn't think it could do — we're going to show up, we're going to get tested, we're going to have this bubble, we're going to have essential personnel only, we're not going to have race fans — it was like, those are all new things. That, to me, was historic.
Midweek races, doubleheaders, no practice. Will we see any of that going forward when we don't have to?
That's a good question. We may have to do that in 2021. For '21, we won't have midweek races. We determined at least for [this] year, it wasn't something we would do. We only have one doubleheader [this] year. It doesn't mean they weren't successful. It does mean we think there are better options than doing doubleheaders for us.
I love the midweek racing personally. It was exciting. As an avid fan, I thought it was awesome. The problem is the casual fan didn't migrate to Wednesday night with us. We want to expose our sport to as many people as we can.
As we get into 2022 with the Next Gen car, what are the things we can do differently? We're going to do some iRacing things, which I think will be really cool to capitalize on some of the things we did earlier in 2020. We'll continue to look at how we modify our schedule both for race weekends as well as where we're racing as we head into '22 and beyond.
As we welcome fans back in greater numbers, whenever that might be, I think the race weekend experience is going to look much, much different. Those are things we're working on right now. It's exciting. We want to make sure that when fans come back, they have an unbelievable time. Things that really didn't move the needle for a fan, let's not do those things and if we can, let's do things that actually do move the needle for a fan.
Chase Elliott is the first Most Popular Driver to also win the championship since his dad, Bill, in 1988. Do you remember when you first met Chase?
That's a good question. I haven't thought about that. I don't remember. Obviously I was watching with interest when he signed (a development deal) with Hendrick (in 2011, when Elliott was a high school freshman). He was destined to be a star. And he has fulfilled that. I think part of the reason you saw so much joy on his face is when you are the most popular driver, it comes with pressure. It's a heavy burden. He has lifted that burden.
He has obviously a very bright future in our sport. Series champion, double-digit wins and counting. It's going to be incredibly fun to watch him. But I think there are others in the sport to watch, too. We've talked about the youth movement for a couple years. You really see it taking hold. The (Ryan) Blaneys of the world, the Bubbas, the Danny Suarezes, and on and on.
The future looks incredibly bright as guys like Jimmie Johnson leave. It's the tapestry of fandom. All the Kyle Larson fans are going to be thrilled that Kyle Larson is back. Fans of Michael Jordan are like, I've got to check this out. All these different components make up what's going to be the future of NASCAR.
We see our ratings being strong relative to where every other sport is. The buzz around NASCAR being higher than it's been in 20 years, that's a very exciting position for this sport to be in. I think we're going to see some continued strong metrics, engagement numbers, from our fan base, both avid fans and new fans, who tend to be younger and more diverse. We welcome them.
(Top photo courtesy of NASCAR.com)