It doesn’t matter what happened in the first four races of the NASCAR season. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, you can basically hit the reset switch.
Like everyone, I was super pumped to have NASCAR back. The schedule changes NASCAR announced weren’t too bold and actually made sense: hold four races at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway (including the Coca-Cola 600) and then basically carry on with the rest of the season, with returns to many of the tracks that saw races postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic in the middle.
Before the pandemic, the races were actually pretty intense and exciting. I was certainly cheering on Matt DiBenedetto at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There was a lot of close racing, and there were plenty of unknowns in terms of who would win each week.
Then the pandemic hit, and all of live sports went on pause. This pause felt like an extended offseason, and there was a ton of anticipation building. From what we saw in the first four races, fans were dying to see more.
NASCAR was among the first pro sports leagues to fully announce plans to come back.
Some would argue they did it too soon, as COVID-19 is still hitting the United States hard.
But NASCAR did so with safety in mind: enforcing social distancing, allowing no fans in attendance, and having race teams considered essential services so that the employees can return to work and get fully in gear.
When Sunday, May 17 finally came and the green flag finally waved again at Darlington Raceway, the action certainly didn’t cool down over the stoppage in action.
There were a few drivers who made an impact early on. Alex Bowman is the first to come to mind. The Real Heroes 400 truly felt normal if you ask me. It was a nice escape from everything going on in the world.
It really felt like NASCAR is back.
Then came Wednesday night. If you thought Sunday afternoon was crazy, then take that race, shorten it, and put it in prime time under the lights. It was cranked to eleven.
There were so many new storylines that developed to make the 2020 season unique when compared to the average seasons of the last two or three years. A new rivalry was created involving Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott (I sense Busch/Dale Jr. 2.0 brewing). DiBenedetto recorded another top ten finish.
Matt Kenseth is even slowly returning to form, as he finished in 10th place on Sunday and ran well Wednesday before a late incident (I guess I was proven wrong).
Lastly, viewership is back up since NASCAR has the stage all to themselves with no other major sports back except for UFC and Bundesliga Soccer.
Sunday’s race reached over 6.3 million viewers. It was the most watched competitive sporting event on television since the 2020 Daytona 500, and it was the most watched non-Daytona NASCAR Cup Series race since the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March of 2017.
We don’t know the numbers from Wednesday night, but I suspect they’re similar if not better than Sunday. And if they’re not yet, after Wednesday night, they likely will be in the near future.
I’d like to think that the first four NASCAR Cup Series races were just preseason before a short 70-day offseason. Now is when the regular season and a strong start matter more than ever. I think we can now officially say, “welcome to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season”.