What’s it like to drive in a NASCAR race with no fans and social distancing rules?
Matt DiBenedetto said the drive before the drive brought nerves.
On his way to Darlington Raceway on Sunday, rolling down the highway at the speed limit rather than 200 mph, he felt freed from his house but also anxious for the Real Heroes 400 ahead. He hadn’t competed in a live NASCAR Cup Series event for more than two months.
Without fans in attendance, there was also a different vibe after the pre-race national anthem: “Just dead silent when you get in the car. We’re usually hearing the flyover and the fans are going crazy.”
But when the engines fired, it was business as usual in a world that’s been anything but lately. DiBenedetto said there wasn’t any rust from competitors, nor unexpected hiccups with social distancing measures in place among crewmembers to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“At the cup level, I think everyone’s just so good,” DiBenedetto told Sporting News. “I mean, they’re all professionals and they’re all so experienced and so talented at this level, so there really wasn’t any of that rust to knock off necessarily. It’s a testament how good the teams are that we were able to do that with no practice.”
NASCAR is among the first sports to return to live action in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s led to a boost in excitement surrounding stock car driving on social media from an audience largely understanding of not being allowed back at the track yet.
DiBenedetto and others have noticed the enthusiasm.
“We appreciate the fans so dang much,” DiBenedetto said. “This gives a whole other level of appreciation (for supporters) that we possibly couldn’t have even felt otherwise.”
DiBenedetto placed 14th in the Real Heroes 400. Kevin Harvick won the race, while Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch rounded out the top three.
The 28-year-old said coronavirus-related rules changes on pit road and in garages had little effect on his placement and was surprised at the effectiveness of the altered process. Masks and temperature checks were required for everyone involved in the race, and NASCAR implemented rules to spread out spotters and crewmembers.
“What stood out to me more than anything was how smoothly everything went from start to finish,” DiBenedetto said. “How much work NASCAR and everybody put in to make sure that we did this all right, how on the same page every single crew member in the whole garage was. I mean, you couldn’t find anyone without their mask on.”
NASCAR returns to the track Wednesday afternoon for the Toyota 500.
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