3 NASCAR races! But fans must stay home
By Bobby Bryant
The coronavirus crisis is giving local NASCAR fans both a dream and a disappointment.
The dream: Three NASCAR races are to be held at the Darlington Raceway in a four-day period between May 17 and May 20 as NASCAR relaunches its season, which had been shut down by the virus pandemic.
The disappointment: Fans won’t be allowed at any of those races to protect them from possible exposure to the virus. All three races will be run amid empty stands and an empty infield. (The races will be televised on FOX and FS1, a FOX-owned cable sports network, and can also be followed online and by radio.)
“As our nation restarts, I can think of no better place for NASCAR to drop the green flag than at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina,” Gov. Henry McMaster said. “Team South Carolina stands ready to help NASCAR restart the season at Darlington Raceway with three races (this) month that can be enjoyed by fans from home on television, radio and online.”
Raceway President Kerry Tharp said in a statement: “It’s an honor for Darlington Raceway to resume the 2020 NASCAR season in just a few short weeks with three races in four days. Darlington is one of the most iconic and historic tracks in the sport and will be a tremendous backdrop when NASCAR returns to racing. We certainly appreciate the support from our state’s leadership in working with NASCAR to allow us to host these events.”
Here’s the lineup for Darlington, confirmed last week by NASCAR:
Sunday, May 17: NASCAR Cup Series race, 400 miles, starting at 3:30 p.m., televised by FOX, also broadcast by FOX Deportes, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
Tuesday, May 19: Xfinity Series race, 200 miles, starting at 8 p.m., televised by FS1, also broadcast by MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
Wednesday, May 20: NASCAR Cup Series race, 500 kilometers, starting at 7:30 p.m., televised by FS1, also broadcast by MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
Four other races are planned at Charlotte this month, one each day from May 24-27. A total of seven races are planned for this month as NASCAR makes up for time lost to the virus shutdown.
“NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said in a statement. “NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community.”
Official word of the Darlington race schedule came last Thursday as more and more rumors, reports and leaks from unnamed sources piled up on the Internet and in some S.C. newspapers. Two days before the official announcement, McMaster dodged a question about the races by saying, “That would be wonderful.”
Darlington Raceway has never hosted three Cup Series races in a single season. The last time the track hosted two NASCAR Cup Series races in the same season was 2004, when Jimmie Johnson won both events, the raceway said in a news release.
“This is going to look unlike any NASCAR season in our history — by a mile,” Chris Gabehart, the crew chief for driver Denny Hamlin, said during a “NASCAR on NBC” podcast.
Gabehart was interviewed after a purported NASCAR race schedule leaked onto the Internet. That schedule showed two races in Darlington, one on Sunday and one on Wednesday (no mention of the third one on Tuesday). Gabehart said he was concerned about going into one race on a Sunday and another on Wednesday.
“If we go Wednesday racing, not only are we not going to get (to) practice or qualify, but our prep time’s cut in half because you’ll be racing Sunday, then Wednesday, then Sunday, then Wednesday,” Gabehart said on the podcast. “It’s just a lot of differences.”
NASCAR and the Darlington Raceway emphasize that Darlington’s signature event, the Southern 500, is still scheduled for Sept. 4-6. NASCAR says neither of the Cup Series races planned for Darlington this month will replace the Southern 500 on the schedule.