The 2020 NASCAR season will be remembered for a number of reasons but these five moments stood out during a remarkable year.
DARLINGTON RACEWAY – MAY 17
The sports world came to a screeching halt when COVID-19 forced a shutdown in mid-March. But after two months of waiting, NASCAR led the way when it returned to action on Sunday, May 17. The original schedule needed to be readjusted as the virus forced states to be locked down and travel to be restricted. So with a stringent protocol plan in place, the sanctioning body looked to stay as close to the Charlotte hub as possible and venerable Darlington filled the bill to host the first race back. There was no practice or qualifying and the first lap at speed came when the green flag flew. It was a seminal moment not just for NASCAR but for the entire sports world as major league stock car racing led the way back.
ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY – JUNE 7
NASCAR delivered a strong message against racial inequality and racism prior to the running of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A number of drivers appeared in a video speaking about the subject before the race as a prelude to an even bigger gesture prior to the start of the race. The field was stopped on the front stretch while pit crews stood on the wall in front of the pit boxes. NASCAR President Steve Phelps then addressed the competitors as well as fans:
“Those watching at home, thank you for your time. Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard. The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country and 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. We ask our drivers, our competitors and all our fans to join us in this mission, to take a moment of reflection to acknowledge we must do better as a sport and join us as we may now pause and … listen.”
TALLADEGA SUPERSPEEDWAY – JUNE 22
Bubba Wallace was joined by all 39 other drivers and their crews in a march down pit road as they pushed his No. 43 to the front of the line in the moments before the race at the Alabama track. The gesture came one day after a rope fashioned in the shape of a noose was found in Wallace’s garage stall. The sight of every driver and crew members as well as other track and NASCAR officials standing behind Wallace in a show of solidarity was stunning. When the group reached the front line, Wallace climbed out of his car and wept. “I Stand with Bubba” was painted on the infield grass.
“This sport is changing,” Wallace said after finishing 14th in the race that was postponed to Monday. “The prerace deal was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to witness in my life. From all the supporters, from drivers to crew members, everybody here, the badass fan base, thank you guys for coming out. This is truly incredible, and I’m glad to be a part of this sport.”
DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY – FEBRUARY 17
“The Great American Race” was set to kick off the 2020 NASCAR season in traditional fashion. A sold-out Daytona International Speedway welcomed the President of the United States to “The World Center of Racing” with the green flag set on a mid-Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be as rain moved into the area after just a handful of laps forcing the race to be resumed the next day. For the second year in a row, Denny Hamlin was the winner, but it came in the aftermath of a frightening situation. Ryan Newman was rushed to a nearby hospital after his car flipped racing to the checkered flag and was struck while in mid-air triggering a fiery crash just past the start-finish line. A pall was cast over the speedway as Hamlin tried to celebrate his victory, but all thoughts were with Newman. Miraculously, just two days later, a photo of Newman walking out of the hospital holding the hands of his two daughters sent a collective sigh of relief through the entire country that had witnessed one of the most violent incidents in recent NASCAR history.
PHOENIX RACEWAY – NOVEMBER 8
When Chase Elliott won the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway to clinch the NASCAR Cup Series title he joined his Hall of Fame dad Bill to become a father/son championship combination. It was the crescendo for the younger Elliott’s ascension up the sport’s ladder to the pinnacle of NASCAR. The achievement also provided a bridge between the sport’s past and future with the 25-year-old Elliott in position as the potential face of the sport for years to come.