Pandemic Hovers As NASCAR Playoffs Begin

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 5 2020

Kevin Harvick leads the Cup Series into the playoffs this weekend at Darlington.

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Race car drivers are accustomed to mechanical failures and accidents foiling their victory efforts, but this year the COVID-19 virus could be the unseen villain that might derail a competitor’s title hopes in NASCAR’s Cup Series playoffs.

Two Cup drivers – Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson – have each missed a race this year due to a positive COVID-19 test. Johnson missed the Indianapolis event, while Dillon was absent from the Daytona road course race. Dillon, however, had already secured a playoff berth with a Texas victory. Johnson had not and when coupled with a disqualification at Charlotte, it contributed to the seven-time NASCAR champion missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

Sunday the NASCAR Cup playoffs open for the first time ever at Darlington Raceway in its traditional Labor Day classic – the Cook Out Southern 500. The 16-driver field could be the most diverse age-wise with a 20-year range in the competitors. Kevin Harvick, the series 2014 champion, is the oldest in the title hunt at age 44, while William Byron and Cole Custer are the youngest at 22 years old. Only three drivers – Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch – are in the playoffs for the 14th time since NASCAR instituted the format in 2004. The older Busch emerged as the series champion that year. 

Six of the playoff drivers already own a Cup championship, but COVID-19 doesn’t care. The drivers admitted they are taking every precaution possible to avoid a positive test, but still contingency plans must be made. After Brandon Jones won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the tough Darlington track, he confirmed Joe Gibbs Racing had asked him to be on standby should one of its three playoff drivers test positive for COVID-19.

Harvick, who amassed a record 57 bonus points en route to capturing this year’s regular season title with seven victories, said the pandemic has altered his and his family’s entire life in an effort to keep him healthy. He travels alone, they don’t go to the grocery store or attend social events, and his son is now home-schooled. 

“It’s touched pretty much every portion of our life, trying to create an environment to be as safe as possible and do the things that we’ve done and learned throughout the year,” Harvick said. 

Brad Keselowski doesn’t believe Team Penske’s procedures to protect everyone against COVID-19 could be any more stringent. Instead, his concern focuses on someone who may hide their illness.

“I don’t believe necessarily at this moment that the testing is strong enough for me to have confidence that somebody does or doesn’t have it more times than not,” said Keselowski, the series’ 2012 champion. 

Chase Elliott noted the only thing the drivers could do was “be smart about who you’re around and the environment you are in … try to be as smart as possible and hope for the best.”

It’s a philosophy NASCAR has emphasized since the sport returned to action May 17 at Darlington after shutting down in mid-March for the pandemic. 

“I think the protocols and things that NASCAR has put in place for us at the race track, some may think it’s excessive or over-the-top, but I think when you look at the situation that we’re in and trying to get back to work, trying to keep working, trying to go by every state’s guidelines and county guidelines and make everybody happy it has to be extreme,” Harvick said. “So, I’m on the side of the fence that I would rather be overly cautious in trying to make sure that we do the things that are required to keep racing. I like going to work and I like doing the things that I get to do on Sunday and we’re trying to do our part in making sure we follow those procedures and guidelines.” 

The Cook Out Southern 500 begins Sunday at 6 p.m. at the 1.366-mile track. It will be televised live on NBCSN. 


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 5 2020
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