This weekend should be one full of happy memories for Joey Logano of Middletown, CT. The NASCAR Cup Series is heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Pennzoil 400, which Logano won last season. It’s the same weekend the FanShield 500 ran at Phoenix Raceway in 2020, another race where the driver of the #22 took the checkers.
But this weekend marks a turning point in the sports history. At the same time, COVID was beginning to spread across the world.
By Chris Womack, photo courtesy of NASCAR Media
“I don’t watch the news a whole bunch if I’m being honest, so you kind of hear about. We’ve kind of been through a couple very small pandemics before and it’s never affected me and my life,” Logano recalled. “So I kind of took it the same way I have all these other ones: That’s overseas, we’re here. We’re in America and life’s good!”
The Phoenix race was the last NASCAR event before the sport, and the world at-large, shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The American sports landscape sat dormant for more than two months before NASCAR led the charge back to competition. For weeks it was the only live sport on television, so NASCAR had a platform unlike ever before.
There were obvious differences. Everyone at the track wore masks, drivers did not emerge from their haulers until race time, and practice was eliminated.
“It’s weird how we all kind of feel like we’ve gotten to a new normal,” laughed Logano. “No matter where you work, you’ve gone back to work and adjusted to the new ways of doing your job. It’s the same way for us in NASCAR, we’ve found ways to go back.”
In addition to historic pandemic, NASCAR went through some planned and unplanned changes.
“We tried a lot of things that we never, ever would have tried if it wasn’t for COVID. Practice, qualifying, showing up and racing at tracks we’ve never even made a lap at,” noted Logano. “The Daytona Road Course, none of us had ever made a lap around it. We lined them up forty cars deep into turn one and nobody knows where they’re going. What? We would have had three test sessions before we even thought about doing that. Those were the things that came up then, but know you can throw anything at us and we don’t care.”
The world is inching back towards normality. At the season-opening Daytona 500 around 30,000 fans were estimated to be in the stands and infield. Drivers are still wearing masks, but post-race celebrations are less muted and subdued than they were over the summer.
What hasn’t been normal is the results of the races. Through three Cup Series events, two first-time winners in Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell have gone to victory lane. The third race went to William Byron, just his second career win in his fourth season on the top circuit.
The top three in the points standings still looks familiar: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Logano. But the parity of the on-track action has been the story of 2021, rather than the off-the-track oddities.
“I like to think that the guys who typically run up front will find ways to run up front. It’s been that way for years for a reason, so I wouldn’t be surprised when you start seeing those regular winners,” said Logano. “But at the same time I look at a couple of the winners so far this year, and it’s up-and-coming talent that’s been in the sport for a couple of years. They’re starting to wrap their heads around the sport and how to win at this level.”
The Pennzoil 400 goes green at 3:30pm ET on Sunday. Fords have won six out of the last ten races at the track, including two by Logano.