NASCAR will be one of a handful of sports broadcasting a real, live event on television this weekend. That’s right. Real. Live. Sports.
In addition to UFC, bull riding, German soccer league Bundesliga and a charity golf match at Seminole Golf Club, NASCAR is attempting to reel in general sports fans who would otherwise be watching NBA, NHL or MLB games if not for the coronavirus pandemic that has forced those seasons to an indefinite halt.
“I feel like this is a genuine opportunity for many different reasons,” NASCAR driver Kurt Busch said. “All sports fans, NASCAR fans, the teams, the drivers, the sanctioning body, we’re all looking forward to it.”
“And at the end of the day, we’re hopeful that this is a light at the end of the tunnel that people can see,” Busch continued. “ … It’s exciting that we have our chance to go out there and just compete whether there’s a stage to stand on or not. You’ve got to block out all that pressure.”
Auto racing’s most popular series, the NASCAR Cup Series, will run its first event back following a two-month hiatus this Sunday at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps said on Friday that the raceway will have about 900 people on site. The raceway has a capacity of 47,000, but the grandstands and towers will be empty of fans. Instead, spotters will be spaced six to 10 feet apart in the stands in order to play their role while social distancing, and fans need to tune in from their television sets.
NASCAR fans know how to do this, but if you are a general sports fans seeking some new content this weekend, have no fear. The Charlotte Observer’s got you covered.
Q: WHEN IS THE RACE?
A: The Cup Series race at Darlington, named The Real Heroes 400 in honor of healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, will be broadcast this Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on Fox.
Cup races typically run each week on Sunday afternoon from February through November. NASCAR recently announced eight more “return” Cup races in addition to Xfinity and Truck Series races, other lower-level series in the sport, which include some Wednesday night races in the coming weeks. The next Cup Series race after Sunday will be on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the same Darlington track.
Q: SO HOW DOES IT WORK?
A: Darlington is a 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval. By NASCAR’s standards, it is considered an “intermediate track” instead of a short track (less than a mile) or a superspeedway like Daytona (2.5 miles) or Talladega (2.66 miles).
NASCAR has specific rules around the stages for tracks of different lengths, and stages are important because they mark when drivers are able to earn points that contribute to their overall points standing.
Q: COOL. BUT WHY ARE POINTS IMPORTANT?
A: Points during the regular season are important because it determines who eventually becomes eligible to compete in the playoffs for the Cup Series Championship. The playoffs consist of the final 10 races of the season, beginning with the Southern 500 at Darlington in September and ending with the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix in November.
Points earned during the regular season determine which drivers advance to the postseason; Sixteen postseason berths are granted to drivers who have either won a race or have the most points during the regular season. Those 16 drivers are then whittled down to four throughout the postseason to compete in the final race.
Q: CAN YOU CIRCLE BACK TO THE STAGES?
A: Right. The stages. At Darlington, there will be stage breaks at laps 90, 185 and 293. There are 293 laps total (400 miles). In addition to the 40 points the winner earns, drivers can earn points at the ends of Stage 1 and Stage 2. Drivers running first through 10th at the end of each of the first two stages receive points (starting with 10 points for first place, nine for second place, and so on, down to one point for 10th place). You’ll see drivers start to race more aggressively leading up to laps 90, 185 and 293 to clinch those points.
Q: SO ARE DRIVERS JUST GOING TO GO OUT AND IMMEDIATELY SMASH INTO EACH OTHER?
A: No. Especially not for this race, since drivers are not able to run any practice or qualifying laps before Sunday. They will likely race more conservatively at the start to get comfortable and to preserve their cars for the next race on Wednesday.
Typically, a qualifying round would set the final lineup and starting grid, but because of the pandemic, the starting grid (i.e., the order drivers take off at the green flag) was determined by a random draw on Thursday. A good starting spot helps drivers establish better track position early, which ultimately plays into teams’ strategies for when they make pit stops to change tires and refuel. On Sunday, there will be live pit stops, so you’ll see crew members running around the cars in masks and fire suits, as they would for a typical race (minus the masks).
Q: WHO SHOULD I CHEER FOR?
A: There are a lot of storylines to follow. Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth are two drivers returning to the sport after taking time off. Kyle Busch was last year’s Cup Series champion, while Chase Elliott was voted the fan favorite. Jimmie Johnson is a legend in his supposed retirement year. Kevin Harvick is the current points leader, but Joey Logano has won the most races so far this season. Erik Jones won at Darlington last year, but William Byron and Timmy Hill are coming off a successful iRacing campaign. The Observer will be covering all of this in the coming weeks, so stick around.
©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)