NASCAR's return tour has taken it to Talladega Superspeedway, and it will be anything but an average weekend at the Alabama track already known for moments of chaos during races.
For starters, new rules concerning aerodynamics are in place for the 2.66-mile tri-oval after Ryan Newman's frightful crash at the end of the Daytona 500 in February at the circuit's only other superspeedway.
Talladega, which was hosting ARCA Menards and NASCAR Xfinity Series races Saturday without fans in the stands, will admit up to 5,000 for Sunday's Cup Series race, which is at 3 p.m. EDT and will be televised by Fox. That's a small number by typical Talladega standards, but a significant step amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Last Sunday's event at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida became NASCAR's first with on-site spectators since the series returned from a two-month shutdown, but that crowd was limited to no more than 1,000, with most of them service members and their families. The increase will occur with at least two NASCAR teams dealing with positive tests for the virus and NASCAR on the lookout for the Confederate flag after recently banning it.
Finally, Denny Hamlin — coming off a win last weekend — and Corey LaJoie are in a bizarre feud that started on social media and escalated until NASCAR intervened by summoning both drivers to a face-to-face meeting at Homestead. And Joey Logano, wrecked last month by Chase Elliott as the two raced for the win at Bristol Motor Speedway, has made it abundantly clear he won't ever give Elliott an inch of room on the track.
These are indeed strange times in NASCAR, one of the first major sports to return to competition in the United States during the pandemic. The Talladega race will be the ninth for the top-tier Cup Series since the May 17 resumption at Darlington Raceway, and restrictions are gradually being lifted.
The green flag will drop some 48 hours after Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed two unidentified employees tested positive for the coronavirus, and less than a day after Team Penske confirmed one team member had done so earlier in the week. Those who test positive cannot be among the 16 people per team permitted to go to the track under NASCAR's current health and safety regulations.
SHR said "robust protocols" are in place to "mitigate the spread of the virus while maintaining the health and safety of all members of the organization and greater community." Penske said its employee "has been in quarantine all week and has recovered without any further symptoms."
NASCAR has refused to divulge any information on positive coronavirus tests or whether personnel have been denied entrance at events after going through the mandatory health screenings at the track. Talladega is a warmup of sorts for expanded admission next month: NASCAR recently said as many as 30,000 people can attend the all-star race at Bristol, and Texas Motor Speedway plans to allow fans at its Cup Series race on July 19.
Newman was in a harrowing accident when racing for the win on the final lap at Daytona International Speedway in February. His car was bumped from behind, spun and went airborne. It was struck by another car and kept rolling in what appeared to be a potentially fatal crash.
Newman sustained a head injury but was released from the hospital just 48 hours later. He continued to recover during the coronavirus shutdown and returned to racing when NASCAR got back on the track in May.
Changes made to the cars for Talladega as a result of Newman's crash include the elimination of aero ducts and a reduction in size of throttle body, and now slip tape must be applied along the entire length of the lower rearward facing surfaces of the rear bumper cover. The changes are for superspeedways only, but teams have zero practical knowledge of their effects.
The condensed schedule has eliminated practice and qualifying sessions, so drivers will get their first feel of their Talladega cars when they climb inside Sunday. Brad Keselowski, who has five wins at the Alabama track, has won twice since NASCAR resumed last month and is among those "not sure what to expect."
"I think the list of changes was so big that I'm having a hard time anticipating how the cars are going to drive," Keselowski said. "Small variations in how the car drives can make a big difference as to how they draft, so it's going to be a lot of learning as we go in the race."
He said sensible driving might prevent the multicar crashes that are a staple at Daytona and Talladega.
"You hope everybody is smart and that they take chances — you have to take chances to learn," Keselowski said. "But by the same token you hope they don't take chances that are potentially lethal to everyone else's day and causes big wrecks. Everybody has different motivations, challenges, goals, and they all kind of get thrown into this big pot at Talladega with no practice. We'll see what happens."
Five years ago, NASCAR said it would no longer allow fans to display the Confederate flag at events but never did anything to enforce the ban. Now, in response to Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace's call for the flag to be disallowed, series leaders say they are serious about enforcement.
They have not outlined any plans on how they will do it, though. The flag is typically flown at campsites and above the recreational vehicles that crowd the infield. Talladega is not permitting camping inside the track — there will be some limited camping outside the track — so Sunday may not be a true test of NASCAR's enforcement ability.
Veteran driver Brendan Gaughan, making his second start of what he believes will be his final season, said NASCAR is at least looking at the big picture.
"NASCAR five years ago made a deal where they tried to get rid of it without overstepping too many bounds," he said. "But now the world has changed where you can kind of step over those bounds and make change, and they made a very positive one. It will work out great for our sport as a whole. I think we'll gain a lot of new fans and a lot of new people will be paying attention, and that's great for all of us."
Hamlin, who won the Daytona 500 for a third time in February, has been beefing with LaJoie on Twitter for months. It seemed harmless at first — it wasn't even clear they were serious — but took a turn in the past week.
After Hamlin drew the top starting spot at Homestead, where the 39-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver has lost three chances at a championship in season finale races, 28-year-old LaJoie of Go Fas Racing said Hamlin would win in South Florida this time because there was nothing on the line. That low blow escalated the warring words, prompting NASCAR to step in by calling the face-to-face session.
Hamlin — who did indeed win at Homestead, earning the 40th victory of his Cup Series career — said after the race that the feud was over. But LaJoie continued the clash in his weekly podcast until finally relenting Thursday with a social media post apologizing for his role in the bickering.
LaJoie explained his position during a Zoom session with reporters and said both were wrong.
"Did I run my mouth a little bit more than what I probably should have? Yes. Did he do things that he probably regretted? Yes. That's how we got into this situation," LaJoie said. "We are both grownups. We both have kids. We both have jobs and livelihoods that are bigger than this little tiff we have going on."
Meanwhile, Team Penske'sLogano has not forgiven Hendrick Motorsports' Elliott for the mistake that took them both out of contention on the final lap at Bristol. Logano refused to allow Elliott any room on the track as he raced Hamlin for the victory last weekend by making it difficult for Elliott to get past him every chance he had.
Elliott curtly said after the race he needed to learn how to handle lapped traffic better and never mentioned Logano specifically. Logano has made it clear he has no incentive to get out of Elliott's way.
"You race people the way they race you," Logano said. "You can't do things without repercussions of some sort. You cost me a win, I cost you a win. Those types of things go like that."