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AP photo by Wilfredo Lee / Dark clouds hang over Homestead-Miami Speedway during a weather delay for Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race in Homestead, Fla.

Full disclosure: I've never been much of a NASCAR fan.

It's not that I've ever really had anything against the sport. I've just always much preferred the rhythmic sound of thoroughbred race horses galloping around an oval dirt track to the deafening sound of a stock car's obscene horsepower as it roars around its own paved oval while destroying the ozone layer.

Because of this, I've never witnessed a NASCAR race in person, though I have visited three of its iconic venues: Atlanta Motor Speedway (press junket after the 1996 Olympics), Bristol Motor Speedway (the 2016 Tennessee-Virginia Tech football game) and Talladega Superspeedway. (When I was in college, some buddies and I heard there was an outlet store in the sleepy east-central Alabama town that had good deals on Izod polos and khakis. When we passed the race track on our way home, the gate was open, which allowed us to briefly drive on the track until a security guard soon ushered us out.)

But as the coronavirus pandemic and rightful protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman have combined to turn the world upside down the past three-plus months, my appreciation of NASCAR has grown by leaps and bounds.

In fact, it could be argued that no professional sports entity has handled its business as well as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing since mid-March.

Let's start with those virtual races NASCAR took part in early in the pandemic. Whether you loved them or loathed them, it was the only game in town for a few weeks. Moreover, for all those gaming gurus obsessed with such things, it proved NASCAR was more than willing to think way outside the box to remain relevant.

And when real racing returned, NASCAR didn't just get its feet a little wet, it jumped in headfirst. Or don't you remember the seven national series races it staged in 11 days from Sunday, May 17, to Wednesday, May 27, including four Cup Series events?

Those races, even without fans in the stands, were the first major sports events put on in this country since March 12, when the PGA Tour played the opening round of The Players Championship before canceling the rest of the tournament and the remaining college basketball conference tournaments in progress shut down, all of this happening a day after the NBA suspended its season.

At that point, sports as we knew it stopped, not to return in any form or fashion for more than eight weeks until NASCAR led the way.

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AP photo by Wilfredo Lee / Fans wait for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Up to 1,000 area military members and guests were allowed in to watch the race, the first major sports event in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown to permit spectators.

Beyond that, Sunday's weather-delayed Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway was also the first sporting event since March 12 that allowed so much as a few fans in the stands, even if no more than 1,000 were expected, and those special military invitees.

But it was the middle of last week, when NASCAR announced the banning of the Confederate flag from its events and properties, that a true milestone moment took hold for stock car racing in particular and sports in general.

If any divisive symbol on a national scale seemed bulletproof for a certain fan base, it was the longtime union of NASCAR and too many middle-class, blue-collar, white Southern males' affection for that flag. It may scream racism and slavery to most folks of all races and religions outside the Deep South, but below the Mason-Dixon line it is more complicated than that.

Yes, there's the vile white supremacist element. But there are also decent-minded Southerners who view that flag in less sinister tones. Parsing which is which when it comes to the purchase of NASCAR tickets can be a tricky, uncertain task.

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AP photo by Rachel Luna / Crew member Brehanna Daniels sprints to help change the rear tires on B.J. McLeod's car during a pit stop in a NASCAR Cup Series race on March 17, 2019, at Auto Club Speedway, in Fontana, Calif. Daniels, the first black female tire changer in NASCAR history, applauded the organization's decision last week to ban the Confederate flag at its races and tracks.

And if NASCAR — which has already lost a noticeable amount of support the past two decades by trying to sell its product to a more upscale audience — guessed wrong this time, it could find itself in a heap of financial trouble two or three years down the road.

As many a fired college football and basketball coach can tell you, winning the press conference doesn't mean winning the race. Banning the Confederate flag was the right moral thing to do, and NASCAR is justifiably reaping the positive publicity of that decision. But if its rank-and-file fans further distance themselves because of that decision and new blood fails to surface, the move could backfire, even if it will never be criticized publicly.

Still, at a time when this country seems to be coming apart at the seams on almost every front — when it's fair to wonder if we haven't become Humpty Dumpty, unable to be put back together again — who would have believed NASCAR would lead the way within the professional sports community in seemingly pushing all the right buttons to date?

As the horrible news from Atlanta regarding another killing of another black man by another policeman unfolded over the weekend, CNN ran a story about African Americans' reactions to NASCAR's banning of the Confederate flag.

Said Brehanna Daniels, a NASCAR pit crew member, as she reportedly wiped away tears: "It's hard being black, y'all. I applaud NASCAR for finally realizing that things need to change for the better. I will always be behind them because of that."

If nothing else, when NASCAR can elicit tears of joy in this largely joyless time, it must be doing something right.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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