NASCAR deals with new rules, feuds and more fans at Talladega
NASCAR's return to racing changes to Talladega Superspeedway. New rules apply after Ryan Newman's terrible fall at the Daytona 500 for the season opening.
The Alabama circuit will accommodate up to 5,000 fans on Sunday - with at least one NASCAR team at risk of coronavirus horror - while NASCAR will be on the lookout for the newly banned Confederate flag.
Corey LaJoie and Denny Hamlin are in a bizarre feud that began and escalated on social media until NASCAR intervened last weekend and invited both drivers to a face-to-face meeting. And Joey Logano, who was destroyed by Chase Elliott last month when the two ran for victory in Bristol, has made it clear that he will never give Elliott an inch of space on the track.
Indeed, these are strange times in NASCAR, one of the first major sports to return to competition as the series continues to fiercely advance during the pandemic. This is the ninth race for the Elite Cup series since it resumed on May 17, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted.
The 5,000 fans in the stands will arrive just 48 hours after Stewart-Haas Racing's confirmation that two unidentified employees have been tested for COVID-19. Those who test positive cannot be among the 16 who are allowed on the route according to the virus rules.
According to the SHR, there are "robust protocols" to "mitigate the spread of the virus while ensuring the health and safety of all members of the organization and the wider community".
NASCAR has refused to disclose information about positive coronavirus tests or if personnel have been denied access to events after completing mandatory health checks on the route. Talladega is a warm-up for next month's extended approval. NASCAR said up to 30,000 people can take part in the Tennessee All-Star race this week, and Texas Motor Speedway plans to allow fans to attend the event.
A look at what is happening in Talladega:
Newman had a serious accident when he drove for the final lap in Daytona in February. His car was thrown from behind, turned, and blew up in the air. It was hit by another car and rolled on in a potentially fatal accident.
Newman suffered a head injury, but was discharged from the hospital only 48 hours later. He continued to recover while shutting down the corona virus and returned to racing when NASCAR came back on the track in May.
Changes made to the cars for Talladega as a result of Newman's accident include removing air ducts on super speedway tracks, reducing the size of the throttle body, and now tape must be applied along the entire length of the lower rear-facing surfaces of the rear become bumper cover. The changes only apply to Superspeedways, but the teams have no practical knowledge of their effects.
The shortened schedule has made training and qualifying unnecessary, so drivers get a first feel for their Talladega cars when climbing in their cockpits on Sunday.
Five-time Talladega winner Brad Keselowski has won twice since resuming NASCAR and is one of those who are "not sure what to expect".
"I think the list of changes was so extensive that I have a hard time predicting how the cars will drive," said Keselowski. "Small variations in the way the car drives can make a big difference in design, so there will be a lot of learning in the race."
He says sensible driving could prevent the multiple car accidents that are a prerequisite in Daytona and Talladega.
"They hope that everyone is smart and that they take risks. They have to take risks to learn," said Keselowski. "But for the same reason, you hope that you don't take any risks that are potentially fatal to everyone else's day and cause great wrecks. Everyone has different motivations, challenges, goals, and everyone is thrown into this big pot in Talladega without practice. Lets see what happens."
THE BAN ON THE FLAG
NASCAR said five years ago that it would no longer allow fans to show the Confederate flag at events, but would never do anything to enforce the ban. In response to driver Bubba Wallace's request not to allow the flag, the series leaders say they take enforcement seriously.
But they haven't outlined plans of how they're going to do it. The flag is usually raised on campsites and above the recreational vehicles that fill the infield. Talladega does not allow camping within the course, so Sunday may not be a real test of NASCAR's assertiveness.
Seasoned driver Brendan Gaughan, who is starting for the second time in his last season, said NASCAR has at least the big picture in view.
"NASCAR made a deal five years ago that tried to get rid of it without crossing too many borders," he said. "But now the world has changed where you can push those boundaries and make changes, and they have had a very positive effect. It will be great for all of our sport. I think we will win a lot." New fans and lots of new people will be careful and that's great for all of us. "
Hamlin, who won his third Daytona 500 in February, has been on Twitter with LaJoie for months. At first it seemed harmless - it wasn't even clear that they were serious - but it took a turn in the past week.
After Hamlin claimed first place for last week's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Hamlin lost three chances in a season finale, LaJoie said Hamlin would win the race because there was nothing on the line. This low blow escalated the belligerent words and prompted NASCAR to hold a meeting on the route.
Hamlin, who actually won at Homestead last Sunday, said the feud was over after this race. But LaJoie continued the clash in his weekly podcast until he finally gave in on Thursday with a social media post that apologized for his role in the dispute.
LaJoie explained his position during a zoom session with reporters, saying both were wrong.
"Did I run my mouth a little more than I should have? Yes. Did he do things that he probably regretted? Yes. That's how we got into this situation, ”said LaJoie. "We are both adults. We both have children. We both have jobs and livelihoods that are bigger than this little argument we have. "
In the meantime, Logano Elliott has not forgiven the mistake that got them both out of the competition in the last round in Bristol. Logano refused to make room for Elliott when he drove for victory against Hamlin last week by making it difficult for Elliott to miss any chance Logano had.
Shortly after the race, Elliott said he needed to learn how to deal with laps better, and never mentioned Logano specifically.
Logano has made it clear that he has no incentive to avoid Elliott.
"You run people the way they run you. You cannot do things without it having an effect. You cost me a profit, I cost you a profit. Things like that go on, "he said.
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