New York Jets: WR Josh Doctson opts out of 2020 season

New York Jets

The former first-round pick and reserve receiver is the third member of the New York Jets to opt-out of the upcoming campaign.

Wide receiver Josh Doctson has become the third member of the New York Jets to opt-out of the 2020 season as the NFL prepares to operate in the wake of the ongoing health crisis. The team confirmed his placement on the reserve/opt-out list on Thursday afternoon. 

Doctson, 27, was signed to a one-year deal this spring. valued at $825,000 that will carry over to next season. He joined the league as a first-round pick of Washington in 2016 (22nd overall). He dealt with an Achilles injury during his rookie season but recovered to score six touchdowns during the 2017 season. The TCU alum was Washington’s second-leading receiver with 532 yards the following year, but the team would not pick up his fifth-season option. Doctson was later among the last cuts last summer.

He joined up with the Minnesota Vikings shortly after, but injuries limited to only one game in November, after which he was released. Doctson becomes the third member of the Jets to opt-out of 2020, joining linebacker C.J. Mosley and offensive lineman Leo Koloamatangi.

Doctson’s opt-out leaves the Jets razor thin on experience at receiver. Veteran Breshard Perriman was chosen to be the top option alongside second-round rookie Denzel Mims. Tenured slot receiver Jamison Crowder will return for his second year in green, as will younger veterans Vyncint Smith, Braxton Berrios, and Jeff Smith. Undrafted free agents and first-year players make up the rest of the catching corps, including Lawrence Cager, George Campbell, Josh Malone, and Jehu Chesson.

The departure of Doctson also leaves the Jets with exactly 80 players on their active roster, putting them at the number sought for NFL training camps this summer. They still have three players (Bryce Hall, Shyheim Carter, Ahmad Gooden) on the COVID-19 reserve list, which accounts for players who have either tested positive or have come into close contact with someone who did. They are eligible to come off after proper medical clearance.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

MLB: Derek Jeter sets the record straight about rumors involving his team and how the COVID-19 outbreak started

The MLB world was shaken when it was learned, a couple of weeks ago, that there were positive cases of coronavirus within the Miami Marlins. Lots of words have been written and spoken about the possible causes of the outbreak, but team owner Derek Jeter had an encounter with the media and criticized the ease with which false rumors were spread about the club.

In total, 18 Miami Marlins players tested positive for the virus, and the team will resume its season today after a hiatus lasting more than a week. Jeter acknowledged that some of his players failed to obey MLB’s safety protocols such as wearing masks at all times and social distancing, but anything beyond that, he says, wasn’t true.

“I am hoping that the first question today is about the health of our players who’ve tested positive because it really has been disheartening to not read anything about that or see many signs of empathy for what they’re going through,” the Yankees great and said according to “Instead, we continue to hear and read about rumors about our players actions in Atlanta, and we need to stop that. And our team and our players deserve better than that. These guys are sick.”

Scott Miller of the Bleacher Report said that after playing an exhibition game in Atlanta on July 21, some players partied at a hotel bar.

A failure to follow MLB safety protocols in times of COVID-19

Jeter said that the report is erroneous.

“Our guys were not running all around town after our game in Atlanta,” Jeter stated. “So I need to ask that that stop. They don’t deserve that. We did have a couple individuals leave the hotel. In our review, it was determined we had guys leave to get coffee, to get clothes. A guy left to have dinner at a teammate’s house. There were no other guests on site. There was no salacious activity. There was no hanging out at bars. No clubs. No running around the town.

“What it boiled down to on this particular trip guys were around each other, they got relaxed and they let their guard down. They were getting together in groups. They weren’t wearing masks as much. They weren’t social distancing.

“Everyone was getting tested, we went the whole spring training 2.0 without a positive and the entire traveling party got a little too comfortable. Should they have been doing that? No. And that’s been addressed, but there is no way to identify how this got into our clubhouse. And activities on Tuesday night (in Atlanta) were not it.”

Jeter also explained that “the entire traveling party is responsible for not following the MLB protocols as instructed. That includes coaches, staffs and players. Everyone has seen the impact. They’ve seen their teammates get sick, and I know we all have a new level of appreciation.

“Hopefully, this has been a wake-up call for everyone, not only on our team, but the rest of baseball and sports in general.”

New York Jets release several veterans, headlined by WR Quincy Enunwa

New York Jets

The New York Jets bid farewell to several veterans as they prepare for training camp, including the tenured receiver Quincy Enunwa.

In addition to the release of Quincy Enunwa, the New York Jets let several veterans go as they prepare for the process of training camp.

The Jets also announced the departures of running back Trenton Cannon, offensive lineman Ben Braden, and linebacker Wyatt Ray. C.J. Mosley was also placed on the team’s COVID-19 opt-out list after the linebacker’s announcement that he would skip the 2020 season over the weekend.

With the release of Enunwa, the Jets have no receivers leftover from Sam Darnold’s rookie season of 2018. Enunwa had inked a four-year, $36 million extension shortly before that season ended, but he suffered a neck injury in last season’s opener that kept him out for the remainder of the year. He was going to miss the entirety of the upcoming campaign as well, placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list in May. Enunwa’s 1,617 yards on 222 receptions are each good for fourth-best on the Jets since 2014. Since Enunwa’s release came after June 1, there are no cap savings or hits.

Cannon joined the Jets as a sixth-round draft pick (204th overall) in 2018 out of Division II Virginia State. He tallied 257 yards of offense over his rookie season, scoring one rushing touchdown. He appeared in four games in 2019 but was placed on injured reserve in November.

Braden will see his second tenure with the Jets end with a release. The Michigan alum joined the Jets as an undrafted free agent and spent parts of the next three seasons in their system. New York released him in September, after which he was added to the practice squad in Green Bay. Braden rejoined the Jets in November and partook in their season finale in December. He took part in three Jets games overall.

Ray had yet to partake in a regular-season NFL game. He ended his senior season (2018) at Boston College with nine sacks, good for fifth in the ACC. Ray had previously spent time on the Houston Texans’ practice squad.

With the release of Cannon, Braden, and Ray, the Jets save just over $2 million in 2020 cap space.

With these transactions, the Jets are down to 81 players on their roster. Three other players are on the COVID-19 reserve list (Bryce Hall, Ahmad Gooden, Skyheim Carter), but remain eligible to return. Training camp rosters are expected to include 80 players as the NFL prepares to navigate their season around the ongoing health crisis.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets LB C.J. Mosley reportedly opting out of 2020 season

C.J. Mosley, New York Jets

After partaking in just two games last season, New York Jets LB C.J. Mosley is reportedly skipping the 2020 campaign.

Per ESPN’s Rich Cimini, New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley will be opting out of the 2020 NFL season. Mosley, 28, becomes the second New Yorker to opt-out, following the departure of reserve offensive lineman Leo Koloamatangi.

Mosley signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the Jets last offseason after five years with Baltimore. He made his NFL entry as a first-round pick (17th overall) and earned four nominations each to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.

His Jets debut was one to remember, as Mosley earned six tackles (including a sack), a fumble recovery, and an interception returned for a touchdown in the Jets’ opening weekend tilt against Buffalo. A groin injury kept him out of the fourth quarter of that 17-16 loss and would later sideline him for the rest of the season, save for an October showdown with New England. Mosley later underwent surgery to resolve the issue.

According to Cimini, Mosley’s opt-out has to do with “family health concerns” as the NFL prepares to navigate its 2020 season around the coronavirus pandemic. The Jets have descended upon Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park to prepare for training camp. But Mosley’s opt-out, as well as the trade of Jamal Adams to Seattle, will leave the Jets without two of their top defenders.

Mosley is, at press time, the 36th NFL player to opt-out of the season. He’s one of the most notable departures to date on a list that includes Super Bowl star Damien Williams and New England Patriots Pro Bowler Dont’a Hightower. The Patriots have been, by far, the team most affected by the departures, with seven exits so far. Receiver Marquise Lee was the latest on that list.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Giants OT Nate Solder Opts Out Of 2020 Season

New York Giants, Nate Solder

The New York Giants have had their first player officially opt out of the 2020 NFL season: offensive tackle Nate Solder.

Nate Solder announced today that he will be opting out of the 2020 season due to serious health concerns. Nate’s son, Hudson Solder, has been fighting an ongoing battle with cancer. Hudson is at high-risk if he were to contract the coronavirus. The Solder family has also welcomed a baby boy as a new addition to the family this spring. Nate Solder has eliminated certain risks by opting out of this year’s NFL season to protect his family’s health.

Nate Solder released this official statement on Twitter below:

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous opt-outs across the NFL. Nate Solder is the twenty-sixth NFL player to opt-out of the season, the first member of the New York Giants to do so. Training camp began yesterday for the Giants. Players underwent their first round of COVID-19 testing and will continue to be tested until they are cleared to practice.

With this news, the Giants have lost one of their two starting offensive tackles. This leaves the door wide open for rookie Andrew Thomas to start immediately at left tackle in 2020. Solder opting out also frees up $19.5 million on the Giants’ 2020 salary cap. But the money does roll into 2021 and likely extends Solder’s career with the Giants.

Nate Solder’s opt-out could also have a ripple effect across the Giants’ offensive line. This creates even more uncertainty over who might start at both right tackle and center. Nick Gates could see himself take a starting role this season and rookie Matt Peart might now have a shot at the right tackle position.

Nate Solder’s family is the top priority. He has made this careful decision to protect the health of himself and his loved ones and he deserves respect and admiration for doing so.

New York Jets: C Leo Koloamatangi opts out of 2020 season (Report)

New York Jets

The New York Jets have their first opt-out of a potential 2020 season in the form of the backup offensive lineman.

Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, New York Jets offensive lineman Leo Kolomatangi has opted out of the 2020 season due to concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. He is the first member of the Jets to opt-out of a potential upcoming season.

The 26-year-old blocker entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He spent two years in the Detroit Lions’ system before joining the Jets’ practice squad last October. Kolomatangi was later promoted to the active roster in November, though he did not appear in any games. The Jets re-signed Kolomatangi in April.

Kolomatangi has been working in Hawaii this offseason, forming the Hawaii Towards Zero program, which, according to its mission statement, focuses “on achieving ZERO cases of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Hawaii” and to “restore what our lives once were, in a safe and new way”. The Fort Worth native spent his college days at the University of Hawaii, where he helped the Rainbow Warriors end a six-year bowl drought with a victory over Middle Tennessee in the 2016 Hawaii Bowl.

“I am with Hawaii Towards Zero because I feel this is the least I can do for a state and a people that have impacted my life so much,” Kolomatangi says on the organization’s site.

With Kolomatangi’s opt-out, the Jets are down to 85 players on their active roster after two other moves relating to the current health crisis. The Jets are also set to place rookie cornerbacks Bryce Hall and Shyheim Carter were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Hall was chosen in the fifth round of April’s draft while Carter is an undrafted free agent. Teams are set to cut down to 80 players by August 16.

Placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list does not necessarily mean a positive test, as placement could mean mere contact with someone who tested positive.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Megan Walker joins New York Liberty in WNBA bubble

The New York Liberty are set to add another rookie to their proceedings, as Megan Walker has reported to Bradenton.

New York Liberty rookie Megan Walker is set to join her New York Liberty teammates at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida for the 2020 WNBA season. The University of Connecticut alumna tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the team’s departure but a pair of negative tests this week has allowed her to partake.

Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb confirmed that Walker had arrived during remote press availability on Thursday afternoon.

“Right now, she’s in the league’s quarantine protocol,” Kolb said via Zoom. “Assuming that she tests negative throughout timeline, we expect her to be with us early next week.”

Walker was the Liberty’s second pick in the WNBA Draft. She was an early entry into the pros after averaging 19.7 points and 8.4 rebounds in her junior season. The Richmond, Virginia native earned the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year Award for her efforts. Previous winners include WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart and Napheesa Collie, last season’s Rookie of the Year. The Liberty chose her with the ninth overall pick in April.

Head coach Walt Hopkins said that Walker has remained in contact with both the coaching staff and her teammates throughout the process.

“We’ll have these next few days to talk to her as much as possible,” Hopkins said. “When I talked to her last night, she didn’t sound out of sorts with anything. She was right there with us. She has watched practices, the ones we have recorded. She’s gotten to watch the scrimmages and seems to have a really good handle on what we’re trying to do.”

Walker is one of seven rookies on the current Liberty roster. The list is headlined by top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu, who is joined by fellow draftees Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, and Leaonna Odom. Jocelyn Willoughby was added through a draft-night trade with Phoenix while Joyner Holmes was signed after veteran Rebecca Allen opted out of the 2020 season.

The Liberty will officially tip off the WNBA’s Floridian endeavors on Saturday afternoon against the Seattle Storm (12 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR eschews practice and qualifying for the rest of the 2020 season

Random draws will continue to determine the starting lineups of 2020 NASCAR races, though the process could change for the playoffs.

NASCAR drivers will continue to play the lottery.

The racing series announced on Tuesday that there will be no practice or qualifying for the remaining events of their trio of national circuits. Random draws will continue to determine starting position as NASCAR continues to navigate its way through the current health crisis.

Through this system, NASCAR has been able to trim race weekends into a single day at the track for many of its drivers.

“Following discussions with our race teams and the broader industry, NASCAR will continue to conduct its race weekends without practice and qualifying for the remainder of the 2020 season in all three national series,” NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller said in a statement. “The current format has worked well in addressing several challenges during our return to racing. Most importantly, we have seen competitive racing week-to-week.”

To Miller’s point, the NASCAR Cup Series has seen seven different winners over the last 14 races since its return from the coronavirus-induced pause. Rookie Cole Custer won the first race of his career at Kentucky Speedway’s Quaker State 400 earlier this month, while Austin Dillon ended an 88-race winless drought this past weekend at the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Traditional qualifying was held for the premiere Cup Series hours before it ran the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in May. Field inversion has been common, particularly when tracks have hosted multiple events in close proximity (i.e. the second half of the Cup Series’ weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway).

Random draws, however, have been the primary way to determine the starting grid in the Cup, Xfinity, and Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series. Positions are awarded based on a vehicle’s spot in the owners’ points. The first 12, for example, are assigned one of those corresponding slots in the lineup, while the next dozen get those.

NASCAR had hinted earlier in the week that the process could undergo a small tweak for the playoffs, in which each of the qualifying drivers would get those top spots. The Cup Series welcomes 16 drivers into its postseason, while Xfinity and Trucks welcome 12 and 10 respectively.

“NASCAR will adjust the starting lineup draw procedure for the Playoff races, and will announce the new process at a later date,” Miller’s statement concludes.

Many drivers have praised the lack of practice, often going from their motorhome to their car on race day.

“I thought it was really cool. I think it had zero percent effect on the race winner today,” said Chase Elliott said after a fourth-place finish at the first race back at Darlington Raceway in May. “Hopefully, we can kind of make this a trend and get back to our roots. It reminded me a lot of short track racing, which I think is a lot of fun.”

“I would much rather not practice, personally,” veteran driver and Cup Series points leader Kevin Harvick said after winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta in June. “(But) you can definitely have both sides to that equation. I think for me, the benefit is having an experienced team, and being able to get things close is something that our team is really good at.”

The circuit returns to action with all three national series running at Kansas Speedway. Things get rolling with the Super Starter Batteries 400 on Thursday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The Truck Series run a pair of 200-mile races on consecutive days, beginning on Friday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

ESM EXCLUSIVE: NFL Hall of Fame K Morten Andersen on the current state of football

NFL points master Morten Andersen spoke with ESM about pro football’s current state of affairs and what needs to ensure a fall return.

(Special thanks to Bet Pennsylvania for arranging this interview) 

Morten Andersen loves football. It’s hard to dispute that after the Copenhagen native spent over two decades in the NFL (including a single-season with the New York Giants in 2001), a tenure that ended with Andersen becoming only the second placekicker elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Speaking with ESM via Zoom, Andersen looked back on an illustrious NFL career, fondly recalling how the love of football has gone international. The Michigan State alum became a source of Danish pride at the turn of the century when his 38-yard overtime field goal at the end of the 1999 NFC Championship Game in Minnesota sent the Atlanta Falcons to their first Super Bowl. When Andersen returned home sometime later, his fellow countrymen were more than happy to express their appreciation of a mini-Danish invasion of American football.

That kick not only earned Andersen a trip to the Super Bowl but also free drinks upon visiting a local cafe/bar in the city of Horsens after a speaking engagement. The Crown Prince of Denmark later invited Andersen to Amalienborg Palace after his induction into Canton.

“People knew there was a guy from Denmark playing football, but it was like ‘eh, that’s cute, that’s quirky, that’s a sport we don’t know (anything) about,” Andersen said. “But when I made that kick, the national pride swelled. ‘That’s one of ours, that’s our guy, that’s our Morten, red and white rocks, Danish dynamite!'”

The game certainly looks different than it did when Andersen, who reached the NFL’s all-decade teams twice (1980s/1990s), was in his prime. Changes go far beyond his familiar kicking territory of adjusting the positions of both kickoffs and extra points.

Each of those relatively recent updates has already become an essential part of the gridiron lexicon. Andersen is now interested where football goes on its continued path of change, one that has seen the NFL insert itself into national conversations about systemic racism and injustice.

“The overarching statement from me would be that kindness, love, and tolerance wins the day all the time,” Andersen said when discussing the NFL’s decision to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, commonly referred to as the “Black national anthem” prior to games this season. “I think this is a matter of everyone in the world taking a good, transparent look at themselves and where they are as human beings.”

Promoting such a message prompted Andersen to think of The Beatles, one of his favorite rock bands. A noted music fan, Andersen feels like the concepts could be flow if one saw the world through an artist’s eyes. He has some experience in the pop genre, briefly exchanging his kicking tee for a microphone in 1985 when he and fellow New Orleans Saints specialist Brian Hansen wrote and performed the single “Take It To The Top“.

“Music, to me, it’s something that crosses all races. You just don’t feel the divide, to me anyway, in the music business,” Andersen explained. “There’s no much going on across all genres, all races, all beliefs. The common denominator here is the love of music, the call of music.”

“I’m not trying to make light of what’s going on the world, I’m just talking philosophically. If you take a page from the world of music, and music-making, there’s a tremendous amount of collaboration going on. Keith Richards, for example, he had his roots in blues and jazz. He was a big fan of reggae. He lived in Jamaica for a long time, he was part of that culture. So you get your influences in music from lots of different people. People who are successful had to start somewhere. That collaboration, I think, is a really great motivator for the world right now.”

Andersen is also looking forward to what the new collective bargaining agreement has to offer. Set to turn 60 in August, Andersen admitted he was most focused on the new pension benefits for retired players. Other new innovations include a higher share of league revenue for active participants and an expanded playoff field.

Now, the question becomes whether we will actually see the 2020 season come to fruition. Andersen commented on the current health crisis by remarking that he “can’t see” fans in the stands “in the beginning” But he’s hopeful that international developments, such as European soccer, can serve as a blueprint and inspiration to carve a path to football in the fall.

Even as a kicker, a position that probably hears the most toxicity from fans no matter how little his time on the field may be, Andersen would prefer to see stands filled…on a safe, healthy basis, of course.

“I feed off that energy. I think all guys would like a full stadium. Nobody likes to play in front of an empty stadium, that’s not ideal, that’s not we’re looking for,” he said. “But that would be the sensitive thing to do initially.”

“Let’s play ball in a safe manner if we can. When the curve says we can bring people back, let’s bring people back.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson speaks about his return to the track

Less than a week after testing positive for COVID-19, Jimmie Johnson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday.

Prior to last Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it had been nearly two calendar decades since Jimmie Johnson’s name didn’t show up on a NASCAR Cup Series scoring monitor.

The 2001 New Hampshire 300, the year’s season finale, was the race in question. It was a rare Friday afternoon excursion, rescheduled from its usual early fall spot after the tragic events of September 11. Of the 42 drivers who partook, four are still racing in the Cup Series full time and five had sons run in either the Cup or Xfinity Series events at IMS over the weekend. The circuit was still known as the “NASCAR Winston Cup Series” at the time. Among the sponsors adorning the machines…some of which were manufactured by Pontiac…were Kmart, Cingular Wireless, and Kodak.

Simply put, it had been a long, long time since Johnson didn’t run a race sanctioned by NASCAR premier series, 663 races to be precise. A positive test of COVID-19 brought upon his absence, revealed less than 48 hours before the green flag waved at Indianapolis.

Johnson took a different seat last Sunday, that of his couch from his home in Colorado. There, Johnson watched Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier pilot his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the first time someone else took over the car since it hit the track for the first time in 2002. In that vehicle, Johnson has won seven Cup Series titles (tied for the most all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and made countless racing memories. This season is set to be Johnson’s final year of full-time racing, one that has already been interrupted by the virus’ initial outbreak. His diagnosis prevented him from a final victory lap at IMS, where he had won four times (most among NASCAR drivers other than Jeff Gordon).

Sunday wasn’t the hardest part, though. According to Johnson, the toughest stretch was the hours that preceded it.

“It was just such a weird set of events,” Johnson recalled in a Friday morning conference call. “I would say that Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing that I wasn’t going to be in the car. Sunday morning was still pretty tough, but I felt like Saturday night was probably the peak of the emotions that go with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end. Not being in the car, my final year, all the things that you would naturally think of, Saturday night was the peak.”

Johnson wouldn’t be at the hallowed racing ground of Indianapolis. But once he partook in the No. 48 team’s weekly prerace meeting, he knew things were going to work out.

He admitted that Sunday morning “wasn’t great”, but things drastically improved upon hearing the voices of his crew and encouraging them for the 400-mile test ahead. The only special advice he had for Allgaier was to “just to drive the wheels off of” the famed No. 48 machine.

“I was able to just hear the voices of my crew guys, pump them up, and just be involved in that team moment,” he recalled. “It’s crazy how it just relaxed me because I was convinced that I wasn’t going to watch the race. I was like I can’t do it. But having that moment to talk to (crew chief Cliff Daniels), all the guys, Justin was clearly on the call and to hear the words he had to say to the team, it let a lot of that go and I actually watched the race.”

The No. 48 didn’t last long on Sunday. Allgaier had to start from the back of the field and made up 11 positions by the time a competition caution came out on lap 14 of 160, but he got involved in a pit road pile-up that took out several competitors. A lost tire damaged the car beyond repair and relegated Allgaier to a 37th-place finish. Fortunately for Johnson, a good majority of his competition on the NASCAR playoff bubble likewise struggled on Sunday, leaving him a healthy 46 points ahead of the 17th-place cutoff in the standings.

Two negative tests and a physician’s approval later, Johnson will return to the track for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Johnson has drawn the 20th spot in the starting lineup for the 267-lap event. Kentucky is one of four venues on the circuit that has yet to host Johnson in victory lane. His 83 victories are most among active drivers and tied for fifth all-time with Cale Yarborough. The most recent of those victories, however, came back in June 2017 at Dover, 110 races ago. It’s by far the longest drought of his career.

Even if Johnson is forced to leave Sparta without a victory, the track holds a special, nostalgic place in his heart. The track hosted some of his early HMS tests prior to his Cup Series debut. Results, however, have been hard to come by. He has finished 30th or worse in three of his last four Kentucky visits and crashed in his lone Xfinity trek in 2001 (when it was known as the Busch Series). A trophy on Sunday would not only clinch a playoff berth but also help his career come full circle…and provide a storybook ending to what’s been one of the most challenging weeks of Johnson’s life.

“I have positive vibes from (the Hendrick tests), but my racing experiences there from the Busch Series days and even in the Cup car has just been demanding and tough,” Johnson said. “I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint. And then clearly what I’ve been through, what my friends and family have been through, what my fan base has been through in the last week, it would be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

A sense of family helped Johnson get through the process of recovery. Earlier this week, Johnson was one of several drivers who stood in defense of Bubba Wallace when U.S. President Donald Trump falsely accused the circuit’s only African-American driver of passing a noose found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway last month off as a hoax. Johnson confirmed a post marked with the tag “#IStandWithBubba” and an image of the stylized No. 43 seen on Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.

Even more concerning to Johnson than the status of his No. 48 was how his family was coping with the diagnosis. Johnson confirmed he never experienced any COVID-19 symptoms but was tested after his wife Chandra experienced what she thought was seasonal allergies (Chandra has likewise been asymptomatic otherwise). Fortunately, neither of the couple’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, were said to be ill. The pair gave the command to start engines prior to the Pocono 350 two weekends ago and Johnson revealed on Twitter that Genevieve, nicknamed Evie, turned 10 on Tuesday.

“The kids are in a good place with it all, I think as good as they can be for their ages,” Johnson said. “But it is tough, they quickly forget how diligent they need to be. I guess ultimately, I know this is a point in time that their little minds will never forget what their parents went through.”

Even with all the delays and the potential of one last ride at Indianapolis delayed at the very least, Johnson has shown no signs of straying away from that path of a final full-time season. But he truly believes that his last season can be one of growth, learning, and understanding thanks to what he’s experienced in this process and the changing landscape across NASCAR.

Though the situation may appear dire at times, Johnson’s refusing to let these current affairs take his sense of positivity.

“It’s been an interesting year and at times wonder why it’s happened in my final full-time season in Cup. (But) when you turn on the news and look around and see how many people are really ill from this, the seriousness and the severity of the pandemic, it quickly fades out of my mind,” Johnson said. “This is a big problem, it’s a pandemic. So, I’ve really kept my emotions in check. I’m just trying to figure out how to keep my family safe and how I can ultimately learn from everything that’s going on.”

“We’ve dealt with a lot in the last four months as a nation and a world, so (we’re) trying to learn and grow, trying to teach and educate my children. Try to lead by example. I’ve been able to learn that my challenges are watched closely by my kids and how I deal with that adversity is ultimately teaching them. And with having a tough couple of years professionally and then now it’s ramped up to this level. Again, I just try to find the right spin on it. It’s easy to get into a dark headspace on all this. My wife and I are trying so hard to not let that happen and try to teach our children the best that we can.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags