This current NASCAR season was going to look different regardless of how the pandemic shaped it, with arguably its most notable change set for Nov. 8.
Phoenix Raceway was tapped to be the new home of NASCAR’s finale after a nearly two-decade run at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a decision announced in 2019 that was part of the series’ biggest schedule reshuffle in years. Then COVID-19 swept across the globe, which led NASCAR to take a 10-week pause and a May restart with a compressed schedule to get all 36 races in.
But the finale’s place and date — a week before NASCAR’s usual season-ending race — remained on schedule, albeit with some notable changes this weekend at the track in Avondale, Ariz.
There will be no qualifying or practice before the four drivers eligible for the Cup title — Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott — and the rest of the field take to the 1-mile oval in front of a drastically reduced crowd.
“We have had races where there were none and races where there were a select few fans,” NBC Sports analyst and soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters on a conference call on Nov. 5. “I think the drivers absolutely prefer having someone in the grandstands to celebrate what they’re seeing and even if it’s just a very small crowd of people to have some kind of reaction.”
“It is the strangest thing for these drivers — and this has all come from drivers telling us this — they work for three and a half hours to win that race and they get out of the car to nothing,” he added. “It is the strangest feeling for them to climb out of the car right there on the flag stand or the finish line, to get the checkered flag and wave it to nobody.”
The race also marks the end of seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR career. The pandemic meant no grand sendoff for Johnson like other drivers from Jeff Gordon to Earnhardt had received as their careers concluded in recent years.
“To be honest with you, I have been sad about that for Jimmie, because I’ve always felt like that we never really appreciated Jimmie in the moment,” Earnhardt said. “He’s a living legend and he was doing all those things right there in front of us, and I don’t think we ever really, as an industry, appreciated how good he was. [Winning] five championships in a row was just crazy. . . . And then this year, I thought, man, he’s finally going to feel that love and appreciation from stop to stop along the tour and, you know, it didn’t happen.”