CONCORD, N.C. — As the season gets underway in earnest, it’s difficult to imagine we’ve spent a year under the confines of COVID-19.
We’ve had disruptions before, certainly. World War II brought everything to a halt, as one would expect, given the need to combat forces around the globe. In the early 1970s, there was the energy crisis that changed the way we raced, but didn’t stop racing.
Of course, 9/11 was a national tragedy with international implications, and while the sport paused for a time to come to grips with what had happened, it didn’t stop.
COVID-19 stopped motorsports for more than two months.
Now that the lid is slowly coming off, the sport as a whole seems to be in good shape to continue unabated.
Judging by the action on the track so far this season, it’s in a little better than just good shape.
At the time of this writing, there had been three NASCAR weekends with three different winners in both the NASCAR Cup Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
That’s not unheard of, but the drivers involved are telling.
In the Cup Series, Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500, a feel-good story if there ever was one.
Christopher Bell finally got that first Cup Series victory the following week on the road course by beating Joey Logano, and at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it was William Byron in victory lane.
In the Xfinity Series, reigning champion Austin Cindric won the Daytona opener, Ty Gibbs shocked the world on the road course in his first series start, and at Homestead, Myatt Snider took advantage of a late-race crash involving a runaway leader, Noah Gragson, to earn his first win.
While COVID may have scrambled the results somewhat, there’s a trend in NASCAR that’s hard to ignore: It’s a whole new ballgame and new players are doing well.
While the NTT IndyCar Series and Formula One won’t begin their seasons until mid-April, it figures to be somewhat the same. The on-track testing packages are somewhat stilted from years past and there’s room for a few surprise winners in each series.
In IndyCar, Team Penske is the unquestioned top dog, as it has been for quite some time. But Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport are always in the mix.
The arrival of Roman Grosjean in the paddock will generate a ton of hype, and judging by his performance in testing at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park, it would be wise to consider him a threat at the road-course events in any capacity.
Formula One is a different animal of course, as Mercedes has been on an unprecedented run along with now seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. Heading into the final season before a radical spec change, this might be the year that the F-1 world gets turned on its collective head.
There’s something to be said for the winds of changing blowing through the sport. It happens every few years, as drivers, formats and the like change from year to year. But this year it seems a bit more probable that new blood will end up with champagne and confetti.
A year ago in the Cup Series, it was the Big Three — and Lord, how I dislike that term — of Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott that garnered all the attention. Five drivers won 28 of the 36 events, but Elliott got hot late and won the title.
In the Xfinity Series, Cindric and Chase Briscoe combined to win 15 of the 33 events and Cindric claimed the title with a victory in the finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Nine drivers won races and with the exception of all-time victory leader Kyle Busch, each of the nine won more than once.
As of the beginning of March, no one had doubled up in either series and given the way recent years have gone, it is shaping up to be a dogfight from Daytona to Phoenix once again.
That’s a welcome thought for the future, and a good trend to have happen on the heels of a global pandemic.