Five things you can expect from NASCAR in 2021, including more fans at races

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NASCAR president Steve Phelps walks the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020, in Darlington, South Carolina. - Chris Graythen/Getty Images North America/TNS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Three months stand between NASCAR and its next season, but the sport started planning its 2021 moves long before Chase Elliott won a championship Sunday.

The 2021 Cup schedule was released in September, and NASCAR has since released the Xfinity schedule for next season. The Truck Series schedule has not yet been announced. Start times, race lengths, stages and broadcast networks for each series are also TBA.

Although the persisting pandemic means NASCAR’s access and fan attendance policies could change, there is some clarity for the 2021 start.

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NASCAR FANS AT RACES, POSSIBLY LIMITED

The season is over but the pandemic is not, and NASCAR is still navigating the latest information around COVID-19. NASCAR president Steve Phelps sounded confident that the Daytona 500 in February will run with fans, but attendance could be limited.

“Do I believe we’re going to have fans in the stands? I do,” Phelps said. “What percentage of fans in the stands? I’m not sure.”

Tickets for Daytona Speedweeks went on sale at full capacity in mid-August. A ticket representative said that the track would inform ticket-holders a month in advance if changes are necessary. Florida is currently in Phase 3 of its reopening, in which large gatherings are allowed but reduced capacity is recommended.

NASCAR raced half of its 32 mid-pandemic Cup races with limited fans or guests this season.

Note: Super Bowl 55 could potentially be pushed to the same day as the Daytona 500. What happens then?

“Right now, we’re running on February 14th,” Phelps said. “That’s as much information as we have. Will we potentially scenario plan for a change? Perhaps. But I don’t foresee that. It’s just hard to say.”

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MORE ZOOMS

Clint Bowyer’s retirement seems suspiciously timed with NASCAR’s use of Zoom this season. The driver was a critic of the virtual meetings earlier this year, but the platform could stick around after his exit.

Last weekend’s championship race at Phoenix was the first time NASCAR implemented a live-virtual crossover for media availability. A handful of reporters were stationed socially distanced in Phoenix Raceway’s infield media center, where interviews were done in person and simultaneously broadcast over Zoom.

It was a fairly effective setup that allowed outlets that couldn’t send reporters to travel to the race to cover the event remotely, including driver interviews. NASCAR appears open to adopting more Zoom availability going forward, which could ultimately mean more coverage for the sport.

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THE RETURN OF NASCAR PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING

Good news for Kyle Busch. The new year will see the return of practice and qualifying, which were nixed as part of a pandemic-era format change, but only a few races will get the track time back.

Eight of the 36 races on the 2021 Cup schedule will hold practice and qualifying sessions before the main events. Those eight races will be the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600, the new venues/configurations of Bristol’s dirt race, the Indy road course, Circuit of the Americas, Nashville and Road America, as well as the championship race at Phoenix next year.

One-day shows are expected for the rest of the Cup races, which means less ceremony around the events for fans, but the quicker turnaround should help reduce the costs of lodging and travel for teams.

Practice and qualifying schedules for the Xfinity and Truck Series have not been announced.

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SIMILAR STYLE OF RACING

NASCAR released its 2021 rules package shortly after announcing its schedule, and there aren’t major changes. Darlington is the one caveat. The track, measuring a little over a mile, will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce package that was used on road courses and shorter oval tracks in 2020.

Nashville Superspeedway, which is about the same length as Darlington, will also use the 750 horsepower package in its debut on the schedule. NASCAR said the rules are largely remaining unchanged “to allow teams to build off their knowledge and experience of the race package, while preparing for the transition to the Next Gen car in 2022.”

Besides Nashville, aero and engine packages for the other new tracks — Road America, Circuit of the Americas (COTA) and the Indy road course — have not been announced.

Retired Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. provided his opinion on the aero and engine package, saying that it doesn’t frustrate him like it might frustrate others after it was under fire by some fans following the Kansas race. There seemed to be a greater emphasis on blocking and less opportunities for passing as Kevin Harvick challenged Joey Logano in the final stage of the race.

“If I thought the package was ruining the entertainment value, then I’d have a big problem, but I don’t think it has,” Earnhardt Jr. told The Observer.

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NASCAR TEAM COLLABORATION

Last month, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing announced they would share a common Chevy engine specification and that the manufacturer would streamline its engine building to one supplier, ECR.

The announcement marked the start of greater collaboration between the teams regarding information sharing, especially as it relates to the engines. After Elliott’s championship win Sunday, No. 9 crew chief Alan Gustafson attributed part of the success to the recent collaboration.

“I think the performance obviously showed on the track today, and I think it’s going to continue to yield good results,” Gustafson said. “Got to thank, certainly Hendrick engines, and ECR engines and Chevrolet, and all they’ve done to give us a great engine and great package with great durability today, and it was a huge benefit.”

That engine partnership seems like it will continue to elevate both programs next season.

Additionally, 23XI Racing, the new Cup team co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, recently announced a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. The four-car Toyota team will supply the car chassis for the No. 23 car driven by Bubba Wallace in 2021. The team partnership could fade after Next Gen inventory hits the sport in 2022, but for next season, it appears team ties will be strong.

“Technical alliances are fine,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said. “It is a unique situation in that we’re going to a new car in 2022, which will kind of change the game board completely.”

He said NASCAR competition officials will continue to ensure that the team does not act as a fifth team for JGR.

“It’s something we’ll monitor for sure,” Phelps said.

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)