Drivers get the glory, especially in this social distancing era, but Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 proved that NASCAR operates as a team sport.
When Kevin Harvick won The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway last week, he was directed to victory lane after performing victory burnouts near the grandstands. Numerous emotions rang through the head of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford’s driver. After all, not only had he just become the 14th driver to win at least 50 NASCAR Cup Series races, he was the first driver to win after the circuit’s coronavirus-induced hiatus came to an end at Myrtle Beach.
But asked which one emotion rang through his head as he got to Darlington’s iconic winner’s circle…one previously graced by legends like David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon…Harvick had a response that’s usually reserved for high school students asking their dates to prom this time of year: “awkward”.
Harvick was more than understanding as to why he was met by only two photographers and Fox Sports’ pit reporter Regan Smith (himself a former Darlington winner) and two photographers were waiting for him. The joyful congestion of victory lane, often crammed to the gills with relatives, crew members, representatives from teams and sponsors, has been sacrificed so NASCAR can run these races and give American sports fans appetizing morsels as their athletics begin to work their way back into their lives.
But it didn’t take away the pain Harvick felt that member of his No. 4 group couldn’t savor the victory with him.
“I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left victory lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it,” Harvick remarked after the race. “When you look at a win like this today, this is an organizational win because you have to have your car dialed in when you get here in order to win a race like this. Our guys have just done a great job of putting all the pieces together. Today we were able to capitalize on that and win a race.”
The lack of a victory lane prescience at Darlington…and beyond…does nothing to dispel a notion that was proven in Charlotte, a lesson that many new viewers of NASCAR are learning, even if they’re only holding themselves over until their usual favorites return: auto racing is a team sport.
Consternation reigned on Twitter during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The marathon event, the longest on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles, saw its early portions dominated by big leads. It was a race that saw its first pass for the lead under the green flag come at lap 225 of the originally scheduled 400.
But what Sunday did show was a fantastic mix of teamwork and driver finesse that makes NASCAR churn out racing excitement on a weekly basis. Sure, it’s probably not a race that will be displayed in whatever NASCAR’s equivalent of the Louvre is, but it served as a good reminder to its new viewers that NASCAR efforts go far beyond the ones behind the wheel.
It’s a shame, perhaps, that no child will ever have a poster of Michigan natives Greg Ives or Scott Brzozowski in their bedroom. But those two played a bit part in changing the early momentum as the respective crew chief and front tire changer for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Alex Bowman. When rain brought out a yellow (and a red) flag shortly after the first 50 laps, Bowman crew changed the course of the race with a two-tire pit stop, one that got Bowman out way ahead of the prior leader as he jumped from 13th to the top spot. The No. 88 would go on to dominate the next stanzas of the race, almost exclusively leading the next 170 laps thanks to Bowman’s on-track prowess and the service he received off of it.
Bad luck befell Bowman in the final stages (though his 20th-place finish will allow him to start at the front of Wednesday’s Cup Series event, also at Charlotte). but the night’s victors perfectly showcased the power of teamwork as they pulled off an improbable win.
Keselowski originally qualified ninth for Sunday’s event, but made some unapproved repairs to the car that cast him back to the rear of the field. It’s not like Keselowski’s woes on the No. 2 Ford could be remedied throughout the course of a normal race weekend. Much like victory lane, Charlotte’s garage was likewise light on activity. Teams have maintained social distancing standards to keep the sport rolling, which limits the personnel teams can have at the track. Not only did Keselowski have a limited crew on location to pull things, but he was also short on time; the Coca-Cola 600’s green flag dropped mere hours after qualifying was run.
The marathon-nature of the 600 allowed Keselowski to bide his time. By the time the rain came, he resided in 16th place. But solid pit strategy from crew chief Jeremy Bullins allowed Keselowski to keep relative pace with the top names. A two-tire stop of their own allowed them to catapult into the lead, one he held as the race engaged in an overtime finish.
But when Keselowski spoke after earning a victory on a race often described as one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, he emphasized the role his team played in their rise from worst to first.
“Obviously, I have a very good team right now,” Keselowski remarked in victory. “We’ve got a race win at a major on a team that’s really just starting to click together. This team has a lot of potential. My goodness, on pit road today, they were on fire. They put us in a spot to win.”
His crew chief Jeremy Bullins earned a moment of glory, representing the group responsible for the No. 2’s speed after the race.
“The social distancing part, it’s really strange,” Bullins said of the current situation. “We’re in Charlotte. This is a race where normally when you win here, you have not only the driver’s wife and family, so many the team guys’ wives, families, girlfriends, moms and dads, all kinds of people here with you to celebrate. Not to mention having no fans. It’s a little bit of a surreal experience.”
“(But) I’m super proud of this team. I feel like I got one of the best teams in the garage. I’ll put them up against anybody. Got the best engineers in the sport, the mechanics, the pit crew, I’ll put them up against anybody.”
The team aspect can, alas, play far differently in certain situations. One such occasion arose on Sunday when Chase Elliott opted to pit when a caution flag erased his healthy lead with two laps to go. Elliott acknowledged that his subsequent visit it pit lane was a team decision, one they regretfully couldn’t take back. An individual effort from Elliott nearly pulled off a miracle…he rallied back to finish third (later moved up to second after original runner-up Jimmie Johnson failed postrace inspection)…but his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet squad was left with a sense of what might’ve been.
Fortunately for the No. 9 group, they’ll have a chance to rewrite their Charlotte story when the Cup Series returns to action on Wednesday night for the Alsco Uniforms 500 (8 p.m. ET, FS1). Further team innovations and insight may well be required to win the 208-lap, 500-kilometer event, especially with the track also being used for lower-tier competitions on the Xfinity and Truck circuits.
NASCAR is undoubtedly gaining fans and they continue to be the most prominent North American team sport back in business at the moment. Hopefully, as newcomers choose their new favorite driver, they’ll take the time to get to know not only the person in the race car, but the group on the outside that makes that thing go 180 miles an hour into the Charlotte straightaway.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags