Coronavirus Pandemic Still Forcing Changes to NASCAR Schedule
- First month of racing in 2021 has seen changes because of rising case numbers.
- Tests of Next Gen Cup Series car for 2022 will resume next week at Daytona.
- Cup champ Chase Elliott named NMPA Most Popular Driver for third straight year.
Despite real progress on the vaccine front, the coronavirus pandemic is still with us. Infections are rising at a higher rate than they were in early March when a surge in the COVID-19 case forced a shutdown of all major professional sports in the United States.
Accordingly, the 2021 schedules for NASCAR’s top three touring series—already announced—have been written in pencil, not in indelible ink. In fact, the first month of competition already has been rearranged because of the coronavirus.
NASCAR’s Top Divisions Will Remain in Florida in February, axing California
The Daytona 500, the season opener for the NASCAR Cup Series, will take place as scheduled on Feb. 14, with Denny Hamlin trying for his third straight victory—and fourth overall—in the Great American Race. Afterward, the Cup schedule will deviate from the slate of races announced earlier this year.
Cup teams, along with those in the NASCAR Xfinity and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, will remain in Daytona and run the road course the following week. The race at Homestead-Miami Speedway moves from the second week to the third, eliminating the first race in the West Coast Swing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
The California race is a victim of tighter COVID-related restrictions in the Golden State. As a result, the early-season West Coast Swing, starting after the Homestead event, will consist only of the scheduled races at Las Vegas and Phoenix. It’s also a safe bet that other changes to the schedule will have to be made before the pandemic is behind us.
Testing of the 2022 Next Gen Cup Car Resumes Next Week at Daytona
The schedule isn’t the only NASCAR undertaking disrupted by the pandemic. Because of difficult logistics and cost factors, the advent of NASCAR’s Next-Gen Cup Series car was delayed from 2021 to 2022, with a series of tests scheduled for the new vehicle during late 2020 and throughout 2021.
After the November Championship 4 race at Phoenix, won by Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. tested the Next-Gen car at Charlotte Motor Speedway, first on the Roval (road course) and then on the traditional oval. After the test, Truex expressed his approval.
It does everything a little bit better (than the current Gen-6 car). A little bit easier, in general, to drive around the road course. It turns really well. We’re having a few issues with the steering on the big track. If the car bottoms out, it really goes haywire, but, otherwise, it’s all been good, and it’s been solid and fun to drive so far.
The Next Gen car will get its next track time on Tuesday and Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway, with Chris Buescher behind the wheel.
All in the Family: Chase Elliott Repeats as Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver
Perhaps the least surprising aspect of the challenging 2020 NASCAR season is the selection of Chase Elliott as the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver.
For the third straight year, the newly-minted Cup Series champion was the clear choice of race fans, who voted online.
Elliott still has a long way to go to match the record of his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who was voted Most Popular Driver a record 16 times. Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned the distinction for 15 straight years after Bill Elliott retired from full-time driving.
In fact, since 1983, only one driver not named Elliott or Earnhardt has won the Most Popular Driver award. Darrell Waltrip was the top vote-getter in 1989 and 1990. The late Dale Earnhardt Sr., a seven-time Cup champion, earned the distinction once, in 2001, after he died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 earlier that same year.
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]