LONG POND, Pa. — The billboard at the entrance to Pocono Raceway has photos of Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott with "First-Ever NASCAR Doubleheader" written in bold letters.
The kicker comes at the bottom of the sign: "Kids Free."
A grand gesture — and a needless one.
Keep the kids at home. Their parents, too. After allowing a small number of spectators into races the past two weekends at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, none will be allowed during this weekend's races at the Tricky Triangle.
The absence stings a bit more this season for a track that first held a Cup Series race in 1974.
Pocono is the site of a Cup Series twin bill, with one race at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and another at 4 p.m. Sunday. The field for Sunday's 350-mile race — down from the traditional 400 — will be set by inverting the lead-lap finishers from Saturday's 325-mile event. The busy weekend is already underway: Ty Gibbs, grandson of NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Joe Gibbs, won the ARCA Menards Series race on Friday, a NASCAR Truck Series is set for 12:30 pm. Saturday and a NASCAR Xfinity Series is set for 12:30 p.m. Sunday. FS1 will televise three of the four races, with Saturday's Cup Series action on Fox instead.
The compressed NASCAR schedule since the national series resumed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has scratched some of the luster off the nonstop racing, leaving Pocono hopeful it gets another shot at the double in 2021. The 2.5-mile tri-oval has taken its knocks through the years, but enthusiasm among drivers — and fans expected to bring their wallets and pack the infield for a Pocono Party unlike anyone could remember — was through the roof for this visit.
Joey Logano, the 2018 Cup Series champion, noted at this year's Daytona 500 how Pocono had a distinct feel.
"Pocono used to just be a race in Pocono. It wasn't a big deal," the Team Penske driver said in February. "Now it's an event. There are two races in one weekend, and that's a cool way of turning it into a big event."
The big news at the track Friday was the opening of the regenerative organic farm, Pocono Organics.
"We had something amazing going, but things change," Pocono Raceway CEO Nick Igdalsky said. "We've got to change course and adapt. That's what we're doing. It's bittersweet. It's really bitter that we can't have fans here. This was going to be one of the most spectacular events we've had in decades."
Talladega Superspeedway was allowed up to 5,000 fans for its race weekend, though last Sunday's race was ultimately postponed to Monday because of inclement weather. The week before, 1,000 fans, mostly military members and their guests, were allowed at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Pocono is in Monroe County, which has entered the green designation in Pennsylvania's reopening plan. That phase limits public gatherings to 250 people, but Gov. Tom Wolf's guidance to professional sports mandates no spectators, even in green.
"Honestly, to me, it's full house or nothing," Igdalsky said. "We want to see that. That's what makes us happy."
Igdalsky declined to address specific projected attendance numbers but said the track had experience 30% growth in ticket sales.
"Our infield was already at 80% capacity by March, and that's when we also added — before we started selling tickets — 800 new spots to the infield," he said.
Joe Gibbs Racing has drivers who have won the past five Cup Series races at Pocono (though Martin Truex Jr'.s 2018 win came with Furniture Row Racing, which is no longer in operation) with Denny Hamlin's 2019 win at Pocono his fifth at the track in Cup Series competition. JGR's Busch and Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick are 5-1 favorites in Saturday's race.
Hamlin had an interesting take on what effects the twin bill might have on competition at Pocono.
"I don't have more to learn there," said Hamlin, whose win at Homestead-Miami Speedway was his 40th overall in Cup Series competition, "and maybe some of the newer drivers will make the bigger strides from one race to the next."
Igdalsky, who said he did not have to lay off or furlough any Pocono employees amid the pandemic, never considered asking to move the race weekend in hopes of accommodating fans later. Pocono held some high school graduation ceremonies and had NASCAR greats Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson send video messages to students.
As for the other festivities fans might have enjoyed?
"We'll save it all for next year," Igdalsky said.