As the world changed a year ago, NASCAR was among the few sports that intended to keep going, although with no fans.
As the sport continues amid protocols that limit who can be in the garage and attendance at tracks, NBC Sports spoke with a Cup car owner, driver, crew chief, engineer, and fan to get their perspectives of the last year and look ahead to the coming days.
NBC Sports talked with:
JTG Daugherty Racing car owner Tad Geschickter
Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick
Miles Stanley, engineer for Ryan Blaney‘s team
Steve Crowder, a 64-year-old resident of Natchitoches, Louisiana, who attended his 27th consecutive Daytona 500 in February
What do you miss in this era of COVID-19 protocols?
Joey Logano: What do I miss? Going around the racetrack without a mask on, No. 1. The fans would probably be also up with that as well. The feeling of being at the racetrack, watching everybody camping and having a good time. The event piece of the race. There’s still a race and all that. Boy, that’s a loaded question, you say “What do you miss?” because I could keep going. I miss practice. I miss qualifying. I miss the fact that, like I said, Sunday morning before the race there were appearances to make, there were people to go talk to, there was a lot of energy, people walking through the garage. There was a lot going on. Where as now, yeah, there’s the race part and it takes up most of my time, obviously, but a lot of the other things that I actually enjoyed (are) not there anymore.
Tad Geschickter: We, as a race team, are like everybody else in the world. We miss that interaction with our customers, we miss the fans. Just being able to see people like we’re used to is probably the thing you miss the most. Thirty percent capacity that we’re getting to at some places is certainly a help, but it’s nothing like having all those people humming around and excited about the race and the electricity it creates. I can’t wait until we get full grandstands and can get back to visiting with our customers at the track and giving them the experience of a lifetime.
Rodney Childers: I miss all the fans being in the garage and hearing people call your name as you’re walking to the drivers meeting, and just those simple things like that that mean a lot. Probably most of all is just seeing the stands full during the national anthem. That’s kind of when you always notice that kind of stuff. It’s a minute to pause and look around and appreciate what you’re involved in.
Miles Stanley: One of the things for me is, honestly, the national anthem, the grid, starting the race. I’ve always kind of got a little bit of a chill when we stand on the line, line up for the anthem and go through the pre-race ceremonies and all that. … You kind of get a chance to look around and see the fans in the stands when we have fans in the stands. Just kind of feel like you’re part of something that is exciting, something that is big.
Steve Crowder: Seeing people that you have seen every year. … The celebration in Victory Lane, you miss seeing that. … Just the energy and the atmosphere in the stands is missing, there’s nobody there or there was nobody there. I’m glad that they ran races with no fans or limited fans because I think the country needed that. I’ll be glad when everybody is back in the stands.
How have things changed with your job?
Joey Logano: If you look at the competition side of it, you look at the ways you prepare for a race now. It’s changed a lot because you don’t have practice anymore. So your preparation for the race becomes, I feel like, more intense because you used to be able to figure out a lot of things during practice. You would prep for practice. During the weekend, you would prep for the race. You see what your car can do. Where you’re fast. Where you’re slow. You talk about it. What you think is most important in the race. What it was like in running around in traffic in practice. Then, that kind of sets up your strategy for the race. Now, you don’t have that. It’s only going back to your notes, going back to film and studying SMT and those types of things to prepare yourself for the race that you didn’t get any practice laps in. So you have a lot more unknowns, which makes the prep, I feel like, more intense and more important.
Rodney Childers: Last year, it was a huge change. I barely went to the shop at all. I barely would go by and just look over the car and see if any details stood out to me. Everything else, I pretty much did from home. That has slowly kind of got back to normal. It’s still not all the way back to normal, but during that period of time, it made me realize that I didn’t have to do all the things that I used to do. I have a good enough team where I don’t have to babysit everybody. I used to think that I had to be the first person here. I had to unlock the front door every morning. I had to turn the lights on. And I had to be the last person to leave and turn the lights off and lock the door behind me. Really, looking back on that, all I was doing was wearing myself down and doing things that I didn’t really need to worry about that others should worry about, so I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s made me shift some priority to my family and to my boys and try to do things that maybe I should have been doing 10 years ago.
Miles Stanley: I do work out of the shop quite a bit, but there is a lot more time spent at home. I have an office in the house and that got changed into a classroom for our son. I got moved to the garage. I’ve been working out of here for the last year. It’s worked out pretty well. That’s certainly different.
How has working out of the shop instead of being at the track for races impacted what you do?
Miles Stanley: We’ve got broadcast feeds. We’ve got pictures. We’ve got timing and scoring. With all those data sources, there’s a challenge in the timing because we’re also connected to the pit box. We have radio communication, like an intercom communication on the pit box. I can talk to the crew chief as if we’re sitting next to each other through the headsets and that is fairly live. But my timing and scoring feed that I get remotely is a little bit delayed, and then there is a little bit delay in the broadcast, and there is a little bit delay in the SMT. While you’re at the racetrack, the timing is all pretty synched up and, obviously, you can look up live and just see the race car. But the challenge is, let’s say Martinsville or Bristol, where the lap times are less than 20 seconds, well, my video feed is sometimes 45 seconds delayed from real life. So the crew chief might be saying one thing he’s seeing on the racetrack, and I haven’t seen this for three laps until after it happened and I’m finally seeing it on TV.
What is it like to win a race in this era of COVID protocols?
Joey Logano: I laugh with (teammate) Brad (Keselowski) a lot. You can either win or crash (but) when you get home, you are taking the garbage out to the curb, everybody is sleeping at the house when you get home, and you wake up the next morning and you change a poopy diaper. It doesn’t matter what happens on Sunday, those are the things you are going to do on Sunday night when you get home. So that part doesn’t change, but it’s more or less the part at the racetrack, the immediate moment after you win that I miss the most.
It’s the pulling into Victory Lane and seeing that everybody else on your team is as excited as you are, and you get to talk about it, talk about the race and certain moments that happened. You’re sitting there in Victory Lane, the trophy is there with you, everyone is having a great time, your car is sitting there with confetti all over it. Everyone is stoked. Everyone is excited. That moment is gone. That’s really what we really race for, I feel like. I race for, that moment, to celebrate those victories with everybody. Afterwards, we don’t typically do a whole bunch of celebrating. It’s on to the next one. But for those 20-30 minutes in Victory Lane, that, to me, is what it’s all about. It’s just, at the moment, been robbed from us because we have to. It’s hard because you want to high-five and hug everyone and talk about it. Instead, we’re standing six feet away from each other, wearing a stupid mask. I hate it. I know we’ve got to do it. I hate that part of it.
Rodney Childers: It’s awfully weird. Man, that first race back at Darlington when we won. (Harvick) is going through (Turns) 3 and 4, coming to the checkered flag, and the only thing I could think about, “Tell the guys, make sure they don’t hug each other. Make sure they don’t have their mask down. They don’t have this, and they don’t have that.” As I tell them, and Kevin somewhat celebrates, my engineer, he looks over at me and says “What are we supposed to do now?” I was like, “We go to the hauler, I guess.” We got down off the pit box and went to the hauler and that was the end of it. The days of being able to celebrate and everybody jumping over each other and spraying champagne and beer and doing all those things that we’ve all enjoyed over the years, it’s just not there anymore. You have that side of it and you also have the fans, the stands. It was so eerie and quiet when we won at Darlington last year. There was nobody there. It was complete silence. To go back there and win the Southern 500 with some fans in the stands was huge.
How has this period challenged you personally?
Joey Logano: Obviously, the COVID virus itself was quite the challenge for my family. It pretty much went through all of us. Some of us were fine and some of us had a really hard time with it. That, obviously, was a challenge in its own way. Big challenge is my wife had her second son right in the middle of this in May. That was a challenge in its own for sure. … We were concerned because a few friends of ours at the time, they had to give birth by themselves. Like, their husband wasn’t able to be there. Can you imagine? I couldn’t imagine. Especially when my wife had to have an emergency C-section, I couldn’t imagine if I wasn’t there. I was scared out of my mind for sure, but that support you have from that significant other is priceless in those moments … Boy, can you imagine going through that alone? It was concerning leading up to that time, and then at the time, everything was fine to be in there as well, so it kind of worked out alright.
Steve Crowder: I’ll turn 65 next month and I’m in good health and on our bucket list is I want to take my wife to Talladega. … This past year was a missed opportunity to have gone to another race. … I would really like her to experience Talladega.
How do you be a team leader when you have limited personal contact with your team?
Joey Logano: It’s been part of the challenge, for sure. For me, as you probably know, I’m typically a guy that is in the garage a lot. If you don’t see me, I’m usually in the hauler 95% of the time the garage is open. That’s just how I function. I function in person. I like being there. One question comes up and I’m able to answer it, it was worth me being there. That’s just me. So when you take that away from me, it presents a whole new challenge. That was the way I led the race team, by example, by being there, by showing how much you care, and I honestly did, and work on it in front of everyone because that’s what I like doing. I like going to work. I don’t like working from home. I hate it. I want to go to work. That was my way of going to work. When I went to my bus at the end of the day, I want to be done for the day. I feel like that’s my healthy way of living. Now I have to find a way of doing that because I work from home. That part has been a little bit different. There’s not going to the shop, things like that, and then how do you lead your race team if that’s what you relied on, how you do that? That part has been hard for me. I don’t think I have all the answers for that. I’m not sure anybody has the right answer for it, but it definitely has been really hard to be a leader as a race car driver as much as I used to be able to do that.
Rodney Childers: I think the weirdest part (was) not having those morning meetings and looking at everybody in the face and kind of talking about the weekend. My group handled it unbelievably well. You look at what we all are kind of going through. Everybody took pay cuts and everything else, and at one time, I’m wondering if they all are just going to walk out and do something different. You’ve got to keep supporting all your guys and making sure that they know that you have their back and that you plan on getting things back to normal as soon as you can and that we all still have one goal and that’s to win races and to try to win championships. It made it awfully easy with my group. I’m really, really fortunate to have the group of people that I have.
Car owners are now allowed in the pits and garage. What is it like to be there after being confined to the suites last year?
Tad Geschickter: When you can, like, pat the crew chief on the back after a good call, or when Ricky (Stenhouse) drove from 15th to fifth in about 20 laps there at Homestead, you can feed off that excitement. When the pit crew has a good pit stop, you can go and fist bump them. You weren’t able to do all of that. You just feel more a part of the team. I felt a little disconnected from the team (last year). I was there. I was performing a function. Once everyone was in the garage and safe and got through COVID protocols, I might sit in my car for three hours and work on my laptop until the race started. Didn’t really have anything particular to do once everyone was in (the garage). Definitely feel more a part of things being back in the garage.
What will normal be like at the track in the future?
Tad Geschickter: I think one of the things, obviously with COVID protocols, we went from a pretty significant head count at the racetrack as far as personnel working on the car and engineering to a much smaller one. Lot of people said it couldn’t be done, but we’ve done it. We had to build a war room (at the shop) back in Charlotte where all the engineers are working during the race and gathering feeds and information and instant messaging this information back and forth to the pit box. There’s a lot of stuff being monitored now through the ECU and that data. We just had to change the way we do it. We have the same number of people working, but maybe they all don’t have to get on an airplane and stay in a hotel room. Certainly the ability to race without practice, we had to refine our tools, what we use to prepare in the shop. It’s been a significant cost savings and a significant benefit, I think, to the competition and seeing who does their homework the best and you got to start the race and adjust from there. That’s definitely been a big change. Another example of how we had to adapt to the new reality.
Rodney Childers: I think as a sport, I think we’ve learned that we can put on good shows on Sunday without spending quite as much money and as much time at the racetrack, whether that is a lot of practice time or that is qualifying. Just things like that. You think about the money we saved in hotel rooms over the last year. It’s a crazy number. The amount of money we saved in practice tires and all those things. You have less mileage on engines and gears and transmissions. You just start adding up numbers and they get to (be) outrageous after awhile to what you’re really saving. I think that is what it will come down to. It’s not really going to come down to whether we all want to do it. It’s just going to come down to the money side of it and what we think we should do as a sport and what the owners feel like they need to do and to keep recovering from everything that happened last year and try to get everybody’s feet underneath them.
Can you believe it has been a year since NASCAR paused because of the coronavirus?
Tad Geschickter: It went by quick and it went by slow. I think about when all this hit and everyone was like, “Yeah, we’ll be back at the racetrack in a week” and a week became two weeks and became a month. Then you had to say, “OK, a big part of our revenue is obviously the sponsors but (also) the winnings coming in every week.” That’s part of your payroll equation and everything. The hard choices you had to make. We chose to keep everyone employed and paid in full. It wasn’t their fault. That ended up working out well for us. That was a big decision. It was a hard decision. It was a risky decision.
Rodney Childers: I still think back on that and just remember sitting at home and (thinking) “Are we going to race at all?” last year. When you sit at home for four weeks and you realize that sponsor payments aren’t coming into the door and all that and you hear about other teams starting to lay people off, it’s a scary, scary deal for everybody in the sport. To just get that call that, “Hey, I think we’re going to go back to racing” was huge for all of us. We’re really fortunate to be able to continue to put on shows every weekend and to continue to do this. You look back at what we’ve all been through over the last year. Not one time have I been scared at the racetrack or felt uncomfortable or think that people in there that are sick or whatever. It’s been a tremendous effort from everybody in the sport to put on the shows we have and to make it is like it is.
When things return to normal, what is one thing you will be glad to be done with?
Joey Logano: I would just be glad to go somewhere and shake someone’s hand, not wearing a mask and not be concerned about my life. That’s what I want to do. It sounds so simple. I just want to go and see people and talk and not feel weird. Even now when you do see somebody, you walk up to them and go like, “Do we fist bump, elbow, do nothing?”
Tad Geschickter: Compartmentalizing the workforce in the shop. … We’ve had to make sure every department comes in at a different time and they stay in their area. All the chairs are out of the break room. That way if somebody’s child gets sick, then five people have to sit out until they are tested vs. 50. … It is so much harder than it needs to be when you ask the suspension department, those three people, never to leave their area except to go to the bathroom and come back. When you have people fogging behind people with disinfectant all the time. I know other businesses do the same thing. It’s hard to be a team when you’re operating three people here and five people there and everyone coming to work at different times so they don’t see each other. It’s kind of strange.
Miles Stanley: Getting rid of the masks. I get the importance of them in trying to keep everyone healthy, obviously, but it’s very frustrating when you’re trying to wear a mask and your glasses are always fogging up and you’re trying to look at your computer screen. That’s the one thing I can’t wait to get rid of.
2. Chance for a turnaround
A year ago, Kevin Harvick finished second to Joey Logano at Phoenix in the final Cup race before NASCAR paused for two months because of COVID-19.
When the series returned to Phoenix in November, Harvick placed seventh and didn’t lead a lap. It was only the second time in the last seven Phoenix races he had finished outside the top five. He’s won at Phoenix nine times and finished in the top 10 the last 15 times.
As the series heads to Phoenix for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox), Harvick looks to reclaim his dominance.
“In all honestly, these days it’s just really easy to get off, whether it’s an aero balance change or just small things,” crew chief Rodney Childers told NBC Sports. “Out there, in the spring, they sprayed the (traction compound) every single day and the track just got tighter and tighter and tighter every day. In the fall, they didn’t spray it all weekend and the track just got looser and looser and looser that whole weekend, and we didn’t compensate for that and we were just spinning out loose in the fall.”
Childers said how the track is treated could again make a big difference.
“I honestly think you’ll see some guys hit it and some guys miss it,” he said. “We’ll see how it plays out for us on Sunday.”
3. Growing stronger
After finishing third to champion Chase Elliott in last year’s title race at Phoenix, Joey Logano said that in such a race, either a team wins or grows stronger.
“We were in position to win that thing,” Logano told NBC Sports. “I was rewatching it (this week) and cringed. I slammed my computer shut because I was sick of watching it. Being in the lead on the last pit stop on the green flag cycle and out by a couple of seconds until we get a tire vibration. It proves to me that we can do it. We were there. Gosh, we were so close to winning that thing and having two of those (championship) trophies sitting behind me. That’s life sometimes.
“I know we’re stronger because of it. I know we can overcome a lot because we had a tough year last year. In my opinion it was a tough year through the mid-part of the season where we weren’t running really well, and we found a way to overcome that even without practice. So, you’ve just got to keep your head up. That’s why our slogan last year was ‘Believe.’ As corny or cheesy that some many think it is, to me, it was what we all rallied behind. We need to believe in each other. We need to believe that we can actually win.”
4. Is the time right for Kyle Busch?
Three of the season’s first four winners were new driver/crew chief combinations in Cup. Christopher Bell and crew chief Adam Stevens (Kyle Busch’s former crew chief) won at the Daytona road course. William Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle won at Miami. Kyle Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels won last weekend at Las Vegas.
Could that be a good sign for Kyle Busch, who is in his first season working with Ben Beshore in Cup? Busch has won two of the five Cup races at Phoenix since the start/finish line was moved before the Nov. 2018 race. His worst finish in his last 11 races at Phoenix is 11th.
He enters this weekend with back-to-back top 10s after placing third at Las Vegas.
“It’s all about building blocks,” Busch said after Las Vegas.
5. Closing in on a record
Kevin Harvick’s streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix Raceway puts him close to the all-time record for most consecutive top 10s at any track. Here is where Harvick ranks on that list:
18 – Dale Earnhardt (at North Wilkesboro)
18 – Richard Petty (at North Wilkesboro)
17 – Jimmie Johnson (at Martinsville)
15 – Kevin Harvick (at Phoenix)
15 – Jeff Gordon (at Martinsville)
15 – Dale Earnhardt (at Richmond)
15 – Benny Parsons (at Bristol)
15 – Richard Petty (at Dover)
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Friday 5: How a year unlike any other was felt throughout NASCAR originally appeared on NBCSports.com