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Five things all sports fans should watch in NASCAR’s return

Even if you’re not a racing fan, NASCAR’s first race since the coronavirus shutdown will give some clues about what all sports will look like when they return.
NASCAR's race at Darlington on Sunday will be one of the biggest sporting events since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
NASCAR's race at Darlington on Sunday will be one of the biggest sporting events since the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]
Published May 15, 2020

Major sports will take another step toward a full return Sunday when NASCAR’s Cup Series rolls into Darlington Raceway for its first race since the coronavirus pandemic caused a nationwide shutdown.

Even if you’re not racing fan, The Real Heroes 400 could serve as a template, or at least an indicator, of what the NHL, NBA, MLB and others could look like in the COVID-19 era. Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s 292-lap race:

Related: NASCAR’s Ryan Newman: ‘I feel like a complete, walking miracle’

1. How well does the soft open work?

Expect a lot simpler scene than this when NASCAR heads to Darlington this weekend.
Expect a lot simpler scene than this when NASCAR heads to Darlington this weekend. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Like much of society, NASCAR is phasing back to work. Instead of a three-day weekend, NASCAR has turned the race into a one-day event. No practice. No qualifying. No fans. No meet and greets. And because Darlington is only 100 miles from teams’ shops in Charlotte, N.C., no hotels.

This type of step-by-step return might not work in every sport, but some parts could be replicable — like more regional college games to reduce travel, expenses and exposure.

Related: Six historical lessons college football can apply to the coronavirus pandemic

2. What kind of advantage do bigger, wealthier teams have?

Will Tampa-born Denny Hamlin have an even bigger advantage this weekend on one of NASCAR's top teams?
Will Tampa-born Denny Hamlin have an even bigger advantage this weekend on one of NASCAR's top teams? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The gap between NASCAR’s haves and have-nots could be especially big this weekend. With no practice time, teams will have to rely on previously collected data and whatever they can process at the track with (likely) fewer people in the pit box.

“I think it’s going to be a battle of broadband to be honest with you, where they're going to be communicating with people back at the shop and people at home,” two-time defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin said.

Will that benefit well-funded teams like Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing? Or will the series’ hiatus affect every team the same, leading to a crapshoot result?

Darlington will provide a glimpse at whether bigger teams are better positioned for a quick rebound from a hiatus unlike anything modern sports have ever experienced.

3. Will the opening laps (or entire race) be sloppy?

Matt Kenseth hasn't raced in the Cup Series since the end of the 2018 season.
Matt Kenseth hasn't raced in the Cup Series since the end of the 2018 season. [ MATT SLOCUM | AP ]
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Drivers haven’t raced in real, non-virtual Cup cars since March 8, so it’s fair to wonder if they will show any effects from the hiatus — especially since they won’t be able to practice before the race. Keep an eye on Matt Kenseth (making his Cup return after a year and a half off as Kyle Larson’s replacement) and rookies like Christopher Bell to see how quickly they adjust. It could shed some insight on how athletes in other sports will look when they return to action.

4. What does a fan-free event look like?

There will be no fan interactions like this at Darlington on Sunday, because there will be no fans, period.
There will be no fan interactions like this at Darlington on Sunday, because there will be no fans, period. [ RALPH FRESO | AP ]

For many viewers, Sunday’s race will be the first glimpse of a major sporting event without spectators in the grandstands.

The cars would cover up any crowd noise, anyway, so that won’t be the issue. But it will be interesting to see how different it looks on TV and what, if anything, Fox does differently to account for the empty seats and non-existent fanfare.

Related: It’s 3 a.m. and I’ve got ESPN and Google translator. Let’s watch Korean baseball!

Veteran driver Ryan Newman doesn’t expect anything different as a competitor once the green flag drops.

“When you’re running 200 mph,” Newman said, “you can’t look in the stands, anyway.”

5. Will celebrations change?

A celebration like this one after Denny Hamlin won his second consecutive Daytona 500 would be frowned upon at Darlington.
A celebration like this one after Denny Hamlin won his second consecutive Daytona 500 would be frowned upon at Darlington. [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]

Victory burnouts will probably still happen, but what about other celebrations? Would Kyle Busch savor his win with his signature bow if there are no fans to bow to? Is it worth trying to grab the checkered flag for a victory lap in front of no one?

Related: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg rescheduled for Oct. 23-25, with fans

On a smaller level, teams have been told not to shake hands, bump fists, hug or high five each other to limit contact with one another, according to Fox. Do they follow the guidelines? If so, what will crew members do after a great pit stop or a win? And will any of this carry over to the NFL, NHL or MLB once those leagues return?

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