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How NASCAR's current COVID-19 protocols give vaccinated drivers a playoff advantage

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Just how many top-tier NASCAR drivers are putting themselves at an increased risk of missing a playoff race by not getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

Sunday’s major topic of discussion at Michigan International Speedway was NASCAR’s changing COVID-19 protocols in the wake of the coronavirus spike across the country and Corey LaJoie’s absence from the race. LaJoie was forced to miss Sunday’s race after he was a close contact of someone with COVID-19 earlier in the week.

Under NASCAR’s current COVID-19 protocols, a vaccinated driver is cleared to compete much sooner than an unvaccinated driver after a close contact. A vaccinated driver just needs a negative COVID-19 test three days after an exposure to be all clear. An unvaccinated driver has to quarantine for a week and test negative at least five days after the exposure.

Those protocols made it clear that LaJoie wasn’t vaccinated. He was exposed to the person with COVID-19 on the Monday before the race. Had he been vaccinated, he could have tested negative later in the week and been in his No. 7 car on Sunday. Instead, the seven-day quarantine knocked him out for Sunday’s race despite a negative test ahead of the race.

Was LaJoie’s situation a wakeup call for drivers ahead of the Cup Series playoffs? With NASCAR’s playoffs broken up into four rounds over 10 races, one missed race can easily end a driver’s title hopes.

It was a wakeup call for Joey Logano, who admitted to media members on Sunday that he had gotten vaccinated in the wake of LaJoie’s situation. William Byron, another driver locked into the playoffs, said he had been vaccinated earlier in the year. So did Tyler Reddick, the driver who currently occupies the final playoff spot ahead of the last race of the regular season at Daytona. Denny Hamlin said earlier in the year that he had gotten the vaccine.

But other drivers weren’t willing to talk about their status and said the decision to get vaccinated was a personal and private matter while toeing the line regarding NASCAR's current rules. Some even made some wild statements without any hint of irony. While we don’t know what the vaccination rate is for drivers and crew members — NASCAR has not publicly shared that data — it’s safe to assume that those rates are not 100%.

Aric Almirola compared being asked about his vaccination status to being asked if he had gotten a vasectomy — newsflash, a woman can’t get pregnant simply by being in another room with a pregnant woman — and Martin Truex Jr. unleashed a bananas take with absolutely no basis in fact.

From NBC:

“There’s no real facts that say vaccinating or unvaccinated is really any different these days,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I’m really happy that they haven’t went down the mandatory road [of vaccinations] because I don’t think that’s fair from any perspective at all. I just don’t think it’s fair you can force someone to do something that they don’t want to do. If they want to take the chance, they take the chance.

“We see other sports leagues doing that. You can’t play if you don’t get vaccinated. So it’s a controversial subject obviously. I’m happy with the route NASCAR is taking. I think they’re being as smart and safe as possible. I don’t think they’re being careless in any way. They’re putting a lot of effort into it just like they did last year, and if you look at what we were able to do last year coming back before anyone and finishing our season when nobody thought we could, I think they’ve done a great job of making the right decisions, and I think everybody in our industry has done a great job of trying to take care of each other and be as safe as possible.”

If you haven’t already figured it out, this column isn’t for you if you’ve bought into the same baseless vaccine disinformation that Truex has. There's a difference between being vaccinated and unvaccinated. Point blank. The vaccines are safe and effective. They will keep you from getting extremely sick. They minimize the spread of a contagious disease that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people across the United States.

And, most importantly in the context of NASCAR, a COVID-19 vaccine serves as a competitive advantage for a driver and team. Because of NASCAR’s current protocols, a team whose drivers and crew members are vaccinated against COVID-19 have an inherently better chance of making a deep playoff run than a team with a driver and numerous crew members who aren’t vaccinated.

In a series where teams spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in search of a tenth of a second in speed to gain an advantage, it’s hard to figure out why any driver or crew member would want to chance a self-inflicted playoff disaster by refusing to get vaccinated.

Perhaps those who haven’t gotten vaccinated are counting on NASCAR’s continued lack of COVID-19 testing. Unlike other major sports leagues, NASCAR is still not regularly testing its participants for COVID-19. And it also has not implemented a vaccination mandate for its participants — a process that is more straightforward for NASCAR than it is for other governing bodies due to the lack of driver or crew member unions — despite previously implementing vaccination mandates for increased at-track access for guests and media at NASCAR races.

It shouldn't take a vaccine mandate for a driver or team member to understand just how much more can be lost in the 2021 playoffs by not getting vaccinated. We certainly hope that the 2021 playoffs at any of NASCAR's three levels aren't affected by a driver — unvaccinated or vaccinated — having to miss a race. Championships in NASCAR's playoff era are won on the margins and by pushing the limits of NASCAR's rule book. And it's wild to think that there would be title contenders unwilling to maximize NASCAR's current COVID-19 rules. 

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