NASCAR: The final Cup Series race that no one knew about

Joey Logano, Team Penske, NASCAR, Phoenix Raceway (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Joey Logano, Team Penske, NASCAR, Phoenix Raceway (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

One year ago today, the NASCAR Cup Series ran its final race for 10 weeks — over two months — and nobody knew it at the time.

Entering the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, there were a few things that all of us knew about. Some were more excited about some of the changes than others, but nevertheless, change was on the horizon.

Among those changes was the altered playoff schedule, which saw Homestead-Miami Speedway lose its date as the season finale. It had held every season finale from the 2002 to the 2019 season, replacing Atlanta Motor Speedway after 2001 (although New Hampshire Motor Speedway held the 2001 season finale after being rescheduled due to 9/11).

Instead of Homestead-Miami Speedway, Phoenix Raceway would host the season finale for the first time in 2020.

Little did anybody know that it would do so twice in eight months.

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Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Alex Bowman won the season’s first three races at Daytona International Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway before the series continued its annual West Coast Swing at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, March 8, exactly one year ago today.

Logano held off Kevin Harvick, who took the lead from Ryan Blaney in the point standings with a second place finish, to become the first driver to win two races in 2020.

That led NASCAR into its first “offseason” of 2020, although Logano wasn’t crowned champion like you might have expected had somebody told you that he would win at Phoenix Raceway and the Cup Series would be off for several months afterward.

That ended up being Chase Elliott, eight months later, but not before a turn of events that no one saw coming.

The plan was for the series to be back in action the following weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 15. But things changed in a big way in the week leading up to that event.

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the threat posed by it led to it officially being declared a pandemic, and that led to the indefinite suspension of the NBA and NHL seasons, the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments, the indefinite suspension of the Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons, both of which were due to start that weekend, and much more.

NASCAR held on for as long as possible. But on the morning of Friday, March 13, I still remember receiving an email saying that “there are larger conversations about the race for this weekend currently happening”, with this coming after it had been announced that no fans would be allowed to attend the event.

So once the nail was inevitably hammered into Atlanta’s coffin, it was evident that there would be no sports — not even motorsports — for the foreseeable future.

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That proved to be the case.

NASCAR was forced to make tons of schedule changes, including the complete elimination of three tracks from the 2020 schedule, to fit a 36-race Cup Series season into the 2020 calendar — and to ultimately ensure Phoenix Raceway kept its Sunday, November 8 date as the legitimate host of the championship-deciding season finale.

NASCAR impressively still managed to maintain a full 33-race Xfinity Series schedule and a full 23-race Truck Series schedule as well.

Action resumed on Sunday, May 17 with a previously non-scheduled race at Darlington Raceway. At this point, there were to have been 12 races run in 2020, and there were still only four.

But after running 20 races in a span of 98 days, when there were only originally 12 races scheduled, the Cup Series was back on track multiple races before the playoffs began.

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This Sunday, March 14, Phoenix Raceway is set to host the first of its two races on the 2021 schedule, with that being the Instacart 500. This race is set to be broadcast live on Fox beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.