Let’s play two: Double-header a first for Cup Series at Dover

The stands were packed for last year’s October race at Dover International Speedway. They’ll be empty for this weekend’s races. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — The COVID-19 pandemic has changed shape of this NASCAR Cup Series season dramatically.

At first, it led to a couple of months off for NASCAR drivers before they returned to the track in mid-May.

Ever since, there have been races held on midweek nights, doubleheader race weekends at Pocono and Michigan and there has been racing mostly in front of empty grandstands to try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Dover International Speedway will host an unprecedented six NASCAR races in three days from Friday to Sunday, with doubleheaders for both the Cup Series and the Xfinity Series scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

The Drydene 311 NASCAR Cup Series race will remain on its original Sunday, Aug. 23 date (4 p.m., NBCSN), while the rescheduled May 3 Cup Series race, also 311 miles long, now moves to Saturday, Aug. 22 (4 p.m., NBCSN). Each Cup Series race day will also include a 200-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series event, including the postponed race from May 2, sponsored by Drydene. The Saturday Xfinity race will start at 12:30 p.m. (NBCSN) while the Sunday event will begin at 1 p.m. (NBCSN).

The new date for May’s postponed NASCAR KDI Office Technology 200 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race is Friday, Aug. 21 (5 p.m., FS1) and the General Tire 125 ARCA Menards Series East race will kick off the marathon weekend that afternoon at 2 p.m.
Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, said any way you slice it, that is exciting.

“It may be the first time in the history of NASCAR that the industry will run six races in three days,” Tatoian said. “So that alone is a logistical challenge but given the circumstances that we’re going to have to operate under makes it even more complex to be able to execute a weekend like that.

“The good news is we’ve had tremendous cooperation from NASCAR, from public health officials … our staff is great from the standpoint of being able to execute this, but it will be a lot of logistics. Right now, it’s a triple doubleheader, so there will be a lot of people coming in and out, a lot of (car) haulers going in and out.”

No fans in the stands

Tatoian said what would have helped make it a truly remarkable weekend of racing at Dover would be if Gov. John Carney, along with his public health advisors, would have given the approval to have fans be able to witness a piece of NASCAR history from the grandstands during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state eventually elected to keep fans out of the stands in the name of safety.

Jamie Mack, chief of the Delaware Division of Public Health’s Office of Heath Systems Protection, said there are different circumstances that surround each event and a variety of things that make each one different.

“The concern related to approving plans for Dover International Speedway was that there was a significant number of people arriving and departing at the same time,” Mr. Mack said. “There was no way to spread attendance over a longer period of time or to adapt to changing circumstances by closing gates or restricting portions of the stadium.

“The total attendance for the six races scheduled for that weekend, could have exceeded 100 (thousand) people which created significant concerns about managing crowds and gatherings within the stadium.”

While there will be no fans on hand to witness the historic weekend from the grandstands, it will be a hectic three days at the racetrack.

Tatoian said that with concerns about COVID-19 numbers rising again in several hotspots around the country that he could understand the state’s decision.

“We submitted a comprehensive plan as to how we planned on keeping our fans safe to the best of our ability,” said Tatoian. “From what I understand, there was not a flaw in the plan or how we were to execute it – the decision was based on the state’s public health officials data showing the increase of COVID-19 cases and they just didn’t feel comfortable allowing the event with fans to take place.

“The decision was certainly disappointing, but with an abundance of caution, the qualified state public health officials didn’t feel comfortable moving forward and we respect their decision.”

Adjusting to the times

NASCAR returned to racing in mid-May after a two-month 70-day shutdown that began in March due to the coronavirus.

Since returning, NASCAR has done everything imaginable to ensure that it completes its scheduled 36 races this season. Some of the changes, which include no practice or qualifying sessions – starting lineups are set by a draw – might be around to stay as the sport has looked at shortening its schedule in the future. Mid-week races and doubleheaders could be a part of that.

Kevin Harvick won the first race back at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina following the COVID shutdown in mid-May. He was impressed by NASCAR’s diligence in protecting its competitors.

“I think the format was great. I think for everybody in the garage it went well,” Harvick said, of that first race back. “I think obviously it’s the hardest on the guys on the team. I think overall everybody would be super happy with a much shorter season and multiple doubleheaders.”

Kyle Larson does a burnout after winning at the Monster Energy Cup Series Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway last October. Larson is no longer competing in NASCAR after he was caught using a racial slur during a computer-simulated race last spring. He is now concentrating on driving sprint cars on dirt tracks across the country. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Denny Hamlin is another driver who has been impressed with NASCAR as it became the first major sport to return to action during the COVID-19 outbreak. He does admit he misses seeing fans at the racetrack.

“I know we have some issues going on in our country that we have to address,” Hamlin said. “We’re also in the entertainment industry and business, we’re trying to entertain the fans at home right now. I think we’re doing a great job with the protocol we have right now here at the racetrack. We’re able to continue to do what we love and put on a great show.

“Unfortunately, it stinks for us because it’s not as much glamour around it. There’s a bigger picture to it. I guarantee if I were to win the Brickyard 400 (in front of no fans), I would put that trophy in the same spot I would if there were 200,000 people there.”

Like Harvick, Hamlin can also see where NASCAR could benefit from a more flexible schedule in the future.

“I certainly think it’s part of the future. I would hope so. I would think so. But you never know,” said Hamlin. “There’s a lot that goes into this. A lot of revenue is made for them each and every weekend. When you compile it into one weekend, their revenue is probably going to be a little bit less.

“It’s just tough to say on who has their hand out the biggest and needs the biggest piece of the pie to figure out where all the money goes.”

When it comes to racing 622 laps over two days on Dover’s demanding one-mile, high-banked racetrack, some drivers have concerns. They are upping their workout regimen to address them.

“Honestly, the last couple of weeks, I feel like I’ve been more in a state of recovery, just trying to feel as fresh as I possibly can when you get to the racetrack,” driver Aric Almirola said. “Not trying to overdo it and run the risk of wearing myself out before I show up for the race weekend.

“A lot of calisthenics, body weight, easy riding, easy run. Nothing where I was pushing myself too hard. I was getting a workout in, I felt good, but it was more just about staying fresh.”

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick, tries to keep his pit crew in as good shape as possible since so many races are won or lost on pitstops.

“I think all of us learn a little bit every time we do it,” Childers said, of preparing for doubleheaders. “I think doing it at Pocono the first time was maybe a little bit of a shock just because none of us had ever done it before.

“Doing it (at Michigan), it kind of seemed fairly normal and not much of a problem at all. It seemed like the guys that even with the backup cars had time to get their stuff ready to go and be ready for the race. All of us keep learning through all of it, communicating, working through it best we can.”

The strategy for the Cup Series drivers coming into Dover’s doubleheader is pretty easy, said driver Joey Logano.

“You go up there and you try to win each one of them. That’s the strategy,” he said.

There’s just one thing Harvick would like to see change at Dover. Much like Tatoian, he wants to race in front of and engage the fans.

“There’s really not a full weekend,” Harvick said. “Our race day, you show up, you check in, spend a couple hours, then you go get in the car. Race day winds up being pretty busy actually. The whole vibe is just different because of that exact fact. You don’t have a whole race weekend. You don’t have that interaction with the fans.”

Tatoian is expecting a lot of action over 72 hours of racing this weekend at Dover.

“There will certainly be a lot of excitement on the track over those three days,” he said. “Like I said, ‘Miles the Monster (track mascot)’ … this is going to be like an all-you-can-eat buffet all weekend with as many cars that are going to be on the track, so it will be great.”