Column: Sports’ best qualities on display in NASCAR’s return

After a 66-day period with no major sports that for many of us has felt like 66 years, the process of resuming the sports calendar began this week as NASCAR staged two Cup Series events, plus one for the second-tier Xfinity Series, in Darlington, S.C.

The events were a welcome sight for competition-starved fans, including some who haven’t ever watched NASCAR before. And while NASCAR is vastly different from stick-and-ball sports, the events those fans have watched this week still featured many of the things that people love about sports.

Sure, one of the biggest elements is missing — fans in the grandstands. That will come back in due time, once the COVID-19 pandemic slows and it’s safe for thousands of people to congregate shoulder-to-shoulder. But as the sports world watched from their homes, what they saw served as a reminder of the qualities that make sports so fun to watch in the first place.

Competition

At the center of this is the competition. All three events this week were competitive throughout, with various drivers taking turns in the lead and battles for position persisting throughout the field.

Drivers race on the opening lap of Wednesday’s Toyota 500 in Darlington, S.C. (NASCAR Photo)

In the two Cup Series events, no organization or manufacturer has stood out as the one having the most speed, with Stewart-Haas Racing (Ford), Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) all showing strength in the two events.

Stewart-Haas’ Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s race for his 50th career victory and Clint Bowyer won two stages in Wednesday’s sequel, while Chase Briscoe won for the team in the Xfinity Series. Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished first and second Wednesday. And while Hendrick didn’t have as strong of results, three of its cars held the first three spots at one point Sunday, and the other team car was in position for a strong finish before a late incident Wednesday (more on that in a moment).

Unpredictability

That parity helped to create another great sports element — unpredictability. Things happened in all three races no one could have anticipated; the unscripted nature of sports has always been one of its biggest appeals to me.

Who could have ever guessed seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson would spin out from the lead on the final lap of a stage (or, for that matter, that he’d be dominating the stage after a 99-race winless streak)? Bowyer had never won multiple stages in a race before Wednesday, and Thursday’s Xfinity race had it’s own set of wild circumstances (more on that below).

Even the weather followed along with that unpredictability — Wednesday’s Cup Series race was delayed by rain; the Xfinity Series race was postponed Tuesday and started four hours late on Thursday. The abundance of rain delays was just about the only unwelcome thing about NASCAR’s return.

Strategy

The weather, though, helped to emphasize the strategic elements of the races. In both Wednesday’s Cup race and the Xfinity event, teams had to tailor their strategy not just to the advertised distance of the race, but also to the current moment, as the possibility of rain persisted through both events. In NASCAR, an event can be rain-shortened if over half the laps are completed — and Wednesday’s race ultimately was ended 20 laps early when the rains returned.

But weather-related plans were not the only strategy employed by the teams. Tire management was a consideration throughout each event, particularly on a track like Darlington where tire wear is so conspicuous. Cars on different strategies created comers and goers in the pack, only adding to the competitiveness of each race.

There are strategic elements to every race, but particularly at a place like Darlington. The unique track is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile circuit with the turns banked most heavily on the outside, meaning that the fastest way around the track is also the trickiest — inches from the wall.

Tradition

The difficulty of “the track too tough to tame” is simply part of the track’s rich tradition. The venue opened during NASCAR’s second season in 1950, and the Southern 500 (set to run as scheduled Sept. 6) was the series’ first speedway race. This week, some 70 years after helping to launch the sport, Darlington was host to its rebirth.

Auto racing is among the most tradition-rich sports, and while few tracks can match Darlington there, one that can is Charlotte, where the sport heads next. Sunday will mark the 61st Coca-Cola 600 — the 59th run on Memorial Day Weekend. NASCAR’s longest race is typically one of three major motorsports events on the holiday weekend, but COVID-19 caused the Indianapolis 500 to be moved to Aug. 23, and Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix to be canceled for the first time since 1954.

While it will be different from previous years, NASCAR will still continue it’s annual observance of Memorial Day surrounding the 600. In addition to special pre-race ceremonies — done virtually — each car will feature the name of a fallen U.S. service member across the top of its windshield.

NASCAR will continue to showcase some of its traditional venues after the Charlotte events, with Bristol, Martinsville, Atlanta and Talladega among the tracks scheduled for the coming weeks on NASCAR’s reworked schedule.

Conflict

The sport’s heritage includes some of the great Richard Petty-David Pearson duels and Dale Earnhardt-Darrell Waltrip feuds — and Wednesday’s race featured some hostility as well.

Chase Elliott spun after he was hooked by Kyle Busch while the two battled for second late in the race, as Busch tried to move into the space between Elliott and fourth-place Kevin Harvick and misjudged that gap, hitting Elliott’s left-rear and sending him into the inside wall.

Elliott pointed his middle finger at Busch as the latter drove by on the next lap, and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had an animated discussion with Busch, the 2019 Cup Series champion, after the race.

Quotes from both in the two days since suggest that they’re ready to move on — and Elliott has stated he now understands Busch’s move was simply a mistake and had no malicious intent — but that hasn’t prevented the conversations among fans and the media to continue, as they likely will until the next event Sunday.

Redemption

Busch’s admitted mistake in Wednesday’s race presented an opportunity to redeem himself in Thursday’s Xfinity Series race, where he was the heavy favorite, and after starting 26th he led the race by lap 48. Then, after winning the second stage, Busch was issued a pit road speeding penalty and was mid-pack once again — presenting an even bigger redemption opportunity.

Busch battled to fifth, then after a late caution picked off the leaders one-by-one up to second, and battled head-to-head with Briscoe in the closing laps.

Busch got all the way back to the top spot, leading the penultimate lap by a few inches, and battled door-to-door with Briscoe all the way back around to the checkers. But the opportunity for redemption for Busch was upstaged when fate had other plans for his competitor.

Emotion

Among the best qualities of sports is the raw human emotion on public display by competitors. The events Sunday and Wednesday included some amount of that from Harvick and Hamlin in victory — including Hamlin’s odd mask featuring his his own smile — while others showed their disappointment, including Elliott’s one-finger salute.

But the most clear display of emotion came from Briscoe. The 25-year-old and wife Marissa learned Tuesday they’d lost their expected baby, as Chase watched in Darlington through FaceTime when Marissa attended a routine 12-week checkup and it was discovered the baby had no heartbeat. Returning to the track Thursday after the postponement gave Briscoe an escape, though he said there were still times during the race he had tears in his eyes.

Briscoe, in his second Xfinity Series season, earned his fourth career win by beating the sport’s best driver, saying later he felt God was driving his racecar in the closing laps because he was an emotional mess. He keyed the radio moments after beating Busch by .086 seconds, but couldn’t speak and instead sobbed audibly; his crew chief told the driver the win was for him and his wife and baby. Briscoe remained overcome when he got out of the car.

“This is more than a race win,” he said. “This is the greatest day of my life, after the toughest day of my life.”

The emotions of victory — and often of defeat, too — are among the most magnetic qualities sports presents. Celebrating a win is one of the best parts of any competition, and sometime’s the participant’s life circumstances make it even more meaningful.

Any human, not just racing fans or more general sports fans, can relate on some level to the emotions shown, and Briscoe’s win was the perfect way to end the week of racing and put a bow on NASCAR’s return.

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