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A step toward normal at Darlington as garage access gets more open

DARLINGTON, S.C. — To borrow a phrase overheard in the newly reopened media center during NASCAR’s throwback weekend, the expansion of garage access to selected guests at Darlington Raceway had a “first day of school” feel.

Race teams welcomed back sponsors and corporate guests, and team officials and media roamed the garage in limited numbers during the tripleheader weekend. The historic speedway that served as the epicenter for NASCAR’s schedule resuming in 2020 was host for the next evolutionary step in the sport’s COVID-19 protocol procedures.

“I think it’s a big deal any time we can get more fan and media and sponsor interaction for our sport,” said Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 team and driver Kyle Larson. “We know the fans are the lifeblood of our sport and everyone with the media and reporters are what presents it to the world and keeps the fans engaged. So to have you guys here and the fans in the stands and have sponsors and media members in the infield, I thought was really cool.

“I think it’s a big positive for us. I know that NASCAR is going about doing it the right way and definitely trust in what they’re doing, so it’s good to see.”

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NASCAR announced April 20 that the garage footprint of essential personnel would grow for fully vaccinated guests, starting with Darlington and including the inaugural race weekend at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on May 22-23. That two-race trial will help shape the protocols for access going forward, as vaccine availability helps the sports world and the country loosen the pandemic’s grip.

As infield access has grown in small measures, so has the reopening of the grandstands. On Friday, both Darlington and Daytona International Speedway announced that their races scheduled for later this season would be open to full attendance. Those two tracks joined Atlanta, Pocono and Sonoma among the venues planning to end restrictions on the number of spectators allowed through the doors later this year.

Darlington hosted limited fans in the stands for its throwback weekend, but those numbers — in the seating areas and the infield — should rise when NASCAR returns for the traditional Labor Day date. So will the crowd reaction, and in turn, so will the buzz.

“It’s encouraging,” said Denny Hamlin, the Cup Series points leader. “Seeing more people on pit lane is always a little more encouraging and a lot more fun from our standpoint. It gets the energy going a little bit better for the event, so definitely hoping we continue this direction that we’re in.”

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Besides the positives of increased fan interaction, this weekend’s soft reopening was also a boon to race teams from the business side. Organizations were able to greet sponsors and provide the “behind the ropes” experience that has become the hallmark of business-to-business relationships in the NASCAR industry. It’s one thing to make the financial commitment to sponsorship; it’s quite another full-on rush from seeing your company’s logo whisk by at triple-digit speeds in person. That’s a different sort of zoom meeting.

“It’s so important for us. Some of the key players that our sponsors have such interest in it, and they love being here and being a part of it,” said Coach Joe Gibbs, who regularly emphasizes how sponsorship makes his four-car effort go. “Today we had guys flying in from all over, (Bass Pro Shops owner) Johnny Morris coming in. It’s great for us to have things opening up. I’m hoping we get back to our fans being — evidently in the fall we’re going to have the place packed.

“But it’s very, very important, too, to get those key people from the companies back into our sport, and I’m looking forward to getting to go again and do hospitalities. So all of that is coming, but it is very, very important today.”

In that sense, the weekend was a sort of reunion on multiple levels. NASCAR continued the annual throwback tradition of getting back in touch with its rich history, and many infield guests safely reconnected after months of work-from-home isolation away from the track.

School was back in session, and all indications are that class sizes are prepared to grow.

“It’s nice to start getting back to normal, getting more fans in the stands and packing the house and putting on a good show for everybody,” said Ben Beshore, crew chief for Gibbs’ No. 18 Toyota and driver Kyle Busch. “That’s what NASCAR is all about and looking forward to getting back there.”