There has never been a season quite like that of what 2020 had given us all. It all started out with so much pride, a sold-out facility, and a race that ended with a familiar victor, and a silent crowd. That silence in the crowd with what they witnessed at the very end, that SILENCE…became a word that was utilized a lot as the year progressed.
No season in the last 70-plus years of NASCAR’s existence can compare to what happened between February and November, nor will it compare to anything we will see after.
How exactly can one even fathom how to summarize the biggest moments of the season, since so many took our breath away. That is the hardest part of trying to do this column, and why it has taken over a month to even determine what to discuss, since so many moments took our breath away, both in a good way, and in a bad way as well.
Let’s look back on a season that was unlike any we’ve ever experienced, with many of the moments having one common theme…Silence.
Rocket Man Miracle
The season began with so much hype, and even had to wait another full day to really feel that hype live up to expectations. But what the season had also in the beginning was what began to set the tone for the season…silence. Not so much the silence that will be discussed later, but the silence of a crowd that could not believe their eyes.
When the Daytona 500 came to a conclusion, no one was talking about the guy that just took his second-consecutive win in the big event, although afterwards they were but for other reasons. The focus was on the frontstretch, as a mangled, destroyed, and almost unrecognizable No. 6 Ford lay on the track, with many rescue workers surrounding the car trying to gain access to Ryan Newman. In the background, suddenly, the winner began celebrating but immediately came to a halt.
A blue, black, and white car suddenly became a convertible as the safety crews extracted Newman, loading him into an ambulance, and went directly to the medical center just miles from the track.
Not one fan left, and they were in silence at what they witnessed. No one could take pictures, as the entire area was blacked out. Even Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon, watching from the FOX booth, could not find the words. They were scared into, yes, silence.
No one knew what was next…until that silence was broken with the relief that Newman was alert, and was staying at the hospital at minimum for the night for observation. Yet, two days later, with his daughters at his side, he was shown walking out of the hospital, not a scratch nor any indicator he was just through a life-altering experience.
That silence on a Monday become joyous tears when he returned to the shop, and then to the track. It is amazing to think that the silence the crowd was showing at Daytona suddenly became a true theme for the year.
The Return to the Track
The run to the championship went through Daytona, Las Vegas, California, and Phoenix. Things were looking up, ready to welcome the next week of action…and then the pandemic hit.
Racing, sports, LIFE, suddenly came to a halt, as if a parachute was pulled and we had to suddenly slow down, and stop. Toilet paper became nonexistent, hand sanitizer became as coveted as gold, and Lysol became a bargaining tool. People began wearing masks, then shields, and suddenly going out in any fashion became a moment where you stayed out long enough to get what was needed, then head home. Businesses faltered, people lost their jobs, and lines to even be tested looked like traffic trying to get into Talladega.
Sports, the one outlet the country utilized to escape any troubles, was gone. Questions of when, or if, anything will return began swirling. Sure, an invitational on iRacing filled some of the void, but it just could not make up for the actual product. So, fans waited, and waited, and waited even longer.
Finally, the news broke…NASCAR was coming back. After over two months of being sidelined, the “Lady in Black” suddenly had a heart. It was in the right area for regulations, it had availability, and it felt this was the right place for a return. However, no qualifying was happening. Practice…not on the docket. For NASCAR, limiting time at the facility was a priority. Every individual at the track, from crew members to limited media, had a screening, and if they passed a temperature check, it was all good. But, drivers stayed in their hauler until called to the grid. Each individual had a mask on, unless they were in the car.
As for the scenery, it was at a track, and the grandstands were disinfected. But, the only souls in the grandstands were the spotters, the flagman, a few cameramen, and a couple photographers. Fans…nowhere in sight.
NASCAR had returned, but did so with a much different look. However, the product on the track looked familiar. There was passing, wrecks, pit stops; it looked exactly like NASCAR should. In the end, one driver did take the victory, and did a burnout. But then, even he emerged from the car in victory to something that at a race felt so odd, and maybe to a point uncomfortable.
A driver that just won a race is used to hearing the jubilation of the crowd, and maybe a few jeers. Here, at the end of the day, all the winner heard once out of the car was something no one was used to hearing.
The Ever-Changing Schedule
Heading into this season, there were a lot of changes already slated on the docket long before the pandemic hit. The season was ending a week earlier, it was a new venue for the championship battle, and even a double-header was put on for the first time ever.
By the end of the season, the only thing that actually was normal was the final ten races being held at their proper place. NASCAR returned at Darlington, a place they were not planning to be at until May, and did so not just once…but twice…in one week. Primetime, mid-week, races seemed to be a theme since the following week, they did it again at Charlotte.
A Wednesday night race at Martinsville made it’s way in, as did both Thursday and Friday races at Kentucky and Kansas.
The double-header at Pocono remained, but then Michigan and Dover got in on the act and doubled down on the action, then a sudden addition of the Daytona road course was plunged into the race slate to make up for not making it to Watkins Glen.
Even heading into 2021, the schedule changed drastically changed. Three road courses are added to the slate, as Daytona gets not just the Clash on the course, but also the second race of the year since Auto Club Speedway was not able to safely host the event. Add in the Circuit of the Americas along with Road America, and that made six road courses to go along with Sonoma, the Glen, and the Charlotte Roval. Nashville then got added in, while Kentucky suddenly was off the schedule, and Atlanta got an opportunity to host a pair of races once again.
Finally, NASCAR goes old school to the fullest extent for the Cup Series. Bristol may still be hosting two races in 2021, but only one is on the true concrete bull ring. In the spring, that bull ring is getting packed with clay, and after a near 40-year absence, the Cup Series is hitting the dirt.
So many schedule changes, so many unique opportunities, and now so many new chances to make an impression. In this case, the only silence coming will be the silence before the green flag.
Seven-Time Calls it a Career
At the beginning of the year, long before the cars hit the track, the news that the most decorated driver in the field was decided that this was the right time to walk away from a sport that saw him achieve so much success in such a short period of time.
No one ever thought they would see someone like Jimmie Johnson enter into Cup competition, and absolutely dominate the sport as he did. Not even I could imagine all the success he would see in the first few years of his career, but you could certainly see that greatness was there, just waiting to be showcased. When that first championship came in 2006, we all felt that the torch got passed in the Hendrick stable. Then came the follow-up a year later, seeing the champion defend the crown and simply show he was destined to be where he belonged in the sport.
No one, not even his own teammates and even his owner, could imagine what was coming. A year later, the three-peat. In 2009, the glass ceiling got shattered with a fourth-consecutive title. Then, he blasts through it again a year later with an unimaginable fifth title, all in a row.
Years later, a sixth title arrived. Then, of all things, in 2016, immortality had met it’s match. Petty…Earnhardt…Johnson, all seven-time champions in NASCAR.
There will likely never be another Jimmie Johnson, just as there will never be another Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, nor Jeff Gordon. Johnson put together a career that many may never match. He has transcended the industry, just like Gordon did years prior. Was the 2020 campaign one he wanted, since for a majority of the time the cheers he would have experienced were nowhere around due to fans being gone…no.
But without a doubt, the man we have known as Seven-Time has left an impact in NASCAR, and made sure no one would be silent on what is a guaranteed Hall of Fame induction.
A Not-So-Silent Siren
When one of the two dominant drivers did not make it to the championship battle, everyone was anticipating the other to take advantage and walk away a winner. But, someone else had been on a big push through the summer, into the fall, and was coming off a week he needed in order to just make it to the championship battle.
But, the battle to take home the most precious trophy in the sport was not going to be easy. Add in the pressure of his teammate making his final start in his career, and it seemed as if the pressure was on, and ready to blast off like a volcano.
But, the silence that was experienced all year long from the stands, even with limited fans in attendance, suddenly got shattered when the final checkered flag waved. Mom and dad in attendance, his car having a number colored exactly like his mentor and teammate, and somehow, a young kid from Dawsonville, Georgia, pulled off the biggest win of his career, cementing in that he was his own man, and not just his father’s son.
Chase Elliott earned everything he needed to in a season that was anything but expected for all. His first infamous moment came in the second race after the return to the track, where one hand gesture said a lot. Two races later, he took a bow to finally get on the win list. Elliott swept the two lone road races on the season at Daytona and Charlotte, and nabbed his first All-Star Race victory along the way. He brought home a grandfather clock to ensure he’d even be a title contender, but one afternoon at Phoenix, the biggest trophy was his.
At the end of the day, symbolic of a new era beginning, Johnson rolled up on the track beside his teammate, and with one high-five, symbolically passed the torch to the man who was now the flag bearer for Hendrick Motorsports.
Not one soul was silent at the track, and the Dawsonville Pool Room certainly wasn’t silent for hours and hours, so long as that siren was blaring.
And with that, we now look ahead to the unknown of what 2021 will bring. Everyone wants, and hopes, the 2021 year in entirety is better than what the last nine months have been. But, no one knows what is coming, or if things could potentially be greatly improved even beyond words.
What is certain is that this year will be forever remembered as one that everyone had to adapt, and learn. Merry Christmas, and here’s to a plentiful 2021.