KERCHNER: NASCAR’s Roller-Coaster Ride

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Mike Kerchner
Mike Kerchner
Mike Kerchner
Mike Kerchner.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Criticizing NASCAR has become common in recent years, and there’s no question we’ve been part of the movement.

However, we have nothing but praise for the way the sanctioning body has performed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest that swept the country in late May and early June.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps has been a rock through both crisis, and when the time was right he brought racing back to the tracks and did so in a thoughtful, professional manner that complied with CDC and local guidelines in the fight against COVID-19.

The races came off without a hitch and gained huge exposure for NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors. The sanctioning body set the example for other sports leagues, including the PGA, NHL and NBA, to follow as they returned to competition.

In mid-June, Phelps began rolling out a plan to methodically permit fans to return to the race tracks.

Phelps and NASCAR were also out in front of things when it came to the civil unrest that resulted from the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The sanctioning body issued a statement and conducted a moment of silence prior to the June 7 Cup Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, encouraging all people to “listen and learn.”

That message — which was highlighted by a video featuring the sport’s top drivers, including Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only black driver — was followed by the sanctioning body later banning the Confederate flag from all of its tracks.

Prior to the Father’s Day NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, a noose was found in Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports garage stall.

When the race was delayed by rain until Monday, NASCAR and its drivers showed a united front in support of Wallace.

However, as SPEED SPORT was on the presses on Tuesday, it was learned the FBI’s investigation concluded that no hate crime was committed.

The FBI confirmed via photographic evidence that a garage door pull rope had been fashioned like a noose and had remained that way since at least last fall.

Fans pack the midway at Pennsylvania’s Tri-City Speedway in early June. (Hein Bros. photo)

— Despite the efforts of industry leaders, motorsports will play a role in the continued spread of COVID-19.

While NAS­CAR, IndyCar, the World of Outlaws and many of the individual tracks have gone above and beyond in adhering to federal and local guidelines, other tracks have run races to capacity crowds with no social distancing or face masks required.

— Kyle Larson is going to win a lot of races this summer. After three World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series score and three consecutive Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions triumphs, the winner of January’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals stepped out of his sprint car and into one of Chad Boat’s midgets and won four of the six races during Indiana Midget Week.

We’re betting Larson wins more than 25 races across various open-wheel disciplines before the snow flies.

— NASCAR may have found a new home on Wednesday nights. While dealing with the pandemic, the sanctioning body has ruled the sports scene during the middle of the week, giving sports fans something to look forward to.

It will be interesting to see if Wednesday races are part of the revamped schedule for next season. But one word of caution, let’s shorten these events. Five-hundred laps of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on a Wednesday night takes too long.

— The battle for the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series championship is going to be very intriguing.

While it’s unlikely to top last year’s title fight, which went down to the very last lap of the season, it appears reigning champion Brad Sweet, upstart Logan Schuchart and 10-time WoO champion Donny Schatz will be the key players in a back-and-forth slugfest.

Through 14 races, Sweet led Schatz by 66 points with Schuchart an additional six points behind.

The trio had combined to win eight of those 14 features.

— Some creative race names popped up during the sport’s return to the race track following the COVID-19 shutdown.

They included COVID Crusher, We Tried To Do It Right 200, Conquer Corona 30, Return From The Corona 75, The COVID-119, The Return From Quarantine and the Quarantine Showdown.

— Look for the television networks to make numerous changes to the way they cover auto racing following the pandemic.

Executives have found they can provide quality event coverage without traveling hundreds of folks to the race track, and there’s no doubt that impacts the bottom line.