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Michigan takeaways: COVID-19 protocols ‘very frightening’ for Cup on eve of playoffs

Ryan Blaney takes the lead with eight laps remaining and holds off hard-charging Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway.

BROOKLYN, Michigan – There was confusion, frustration and resignation, but the overriding emotion last weekend about NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols seemed to be fear.

With one race remaining until the playoffs begin and COVID-19 cases surging across the country, the specter of a NASCAR championship being dashed even without a positive test left Cup Series drivers so on edge, NASCAR executives commissioned a Zoom call last Friday to explain the risks with Corey LaJoie sidelined amid increasing restrictions.

While the call assuaged some worries about potential exposure (including some tweaks to the weekly media availability that caused pushback from stars), it hardly put anyone at ease.

“Under normal circumstances, I don’t think I’d ever miss a race, but definitely the Corey LaJoie piece, how he’s not sick and he’s not here today, is very, very frightening,” said Christopher Bell, who is on the cusp of beginning his first championship bid for Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s not ideal for sure. It’s very eye opening for all of us drivers to understand the protocol that’s in place. You don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a shame that it’s that way.

“Yeah, it’s definitely unnerving that a guy that’s not sick is not allowed to race because unfortunately he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. So that just doesn’t seem right for sure. I don’t know. Hopefully he can stay healthy, and I guess lock yourself in your house for the next 10 weeks.”

LaJoie, who watched Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway with fans on Instagram while serving his mandatory seven-day quarantine for a close contact, could be back as early as Saturday at Daytona International Speedway and has received a waiver for making the Cup playoffs if he wins.

A waiver has been granted in each of three instances that a Cup driver was sidelined in season by COVID-19 as NASCAR has seemed slightly more lenient than other professional sports leagues (which have mandated daily testing while heavily incentivizing vaccinations).

That hardly seemed of any solace at Michigan, where some drivers stood nearly 10 feet away from reporters during their media availabilities.

“I think obviously it’s a concern of everybody,” Kyle Larson said, gesturing toward two reporters. “Like one of you guys could test positive, and we’re screwed.”

Chase Elliott spoke at length Sunday about what he felt was a powerless situation.

“I don’t know what you do about it,” the 2020 champion said. “Some things you can’t control. You can be smart about what you do and where you go, but that still doesn’t guarantee it’s not going to happen to you, so it’s a tricky situation is the best way for me to put it without getting political. I feel like it’s just tricky. Especially for our situation this time of year. You can’t really afford to miss a race. Especially once the playoffs start.”

The backdrop of all the angst and worry is a world-weariness that is shared by everyone about being 18 months into a pandemic that seemed to be subsiding as recently as six weeks ago.

“I feel as though it’s … I don’t know,” Kyle Busch said with a laugh. “As the world we live in, it’s about time to move on, but I’m definitely not as smart as the smart guys.

Said Joey Logano: “Everyone is going off guidelines that have been put out there, and the guidelines change daily. It can go either way from here. We can be locked down more so than what we are tomorrow. Or who knows, maybe (case) numbers change the other way, and we’re good to go.

“We were just about good to go two weeks ago, and then everything started to lock back down again to a certain level. There’s only so much we can actually do about it. Some of it is out of our control. The main thing is to be racing. That’s most important, and we need to do that safely.”

Logano said Sunday that he got vaccinated last week after LaJoie’s situation came to light because of the benefits of being able to return more quickly after a close contact.

LaJoie’s exposure occurred on a Monday, meaning he could have been cleared to race at Michigan by Thursday, Friday or Saturday if he were vaccinated, vs. the seven-day mandatory quarantine he served instead.

“If it’s a matter of when you get to race, I think that’ll change a lot of opinions,” Erik Jones told NBC Sports about the rules for being vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. “It’s definitely brought up a lot of opinions in the garage area between drivers. I don’t want to get too deep into that obviously because it’s kind of a sensitive subject with everybody. But there are definitely a lot of opinions on it right now of how the drivers’ stance might change on that.”

Here were some observations from Michigan about drivers’ thoughts on COVID-19 protocols:

What drivers think and what they want: Since LaJoie’s benching, drivers have lobbied NASCAR to tweak its exposure protocols (which parallel the Centers for Disease Control guidelines).

“It’s just from our standpoint of how can you trust a positive test but not trust a negative,” Denny Hamlin said. “It’s a whole other Pandora’s Box that if you treat one test as negative, believe it. If it’s positive, believe it. There’s just a lot of protocols.”

Instead of a mandatory seven-day quarantine for an unvaccinated driver, or a three-day wait for the vaccinated to be cleared, drivers believe that multiple negative tests should be enough to get a driver out of protocols early.

“I feel like if you take multiple tests and come back negative over the course of numerous days, you’re probably good to go,” Brad Keselowski said.

Said Elliott: “I feel like if you don’t have COVID, I’m not sure why you can’t be here. It makes sense if you have a negative test, logically speaking. Why can’t you be around? I don’t know.”

NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN - AUGUST 22: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #8 Chevy Accessories Chevrolet, prepares for the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 22, 2021 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Logano suggested that drivers would be willing as a compromise to return to last season’s policy of being cordoned off from their teams until walking to their cars alone shortly before the green flag.

“You can come to the racetrack and never see anybody,” Logano said. “You can drive yourself to the track and stay in the car until it’s game time. You can walk out with some hazmat suit on if you want. As a driver, I feel safe with that. I’m not going to get COVID from the guy in the race car next to me. We’re going 200 mph. I think everyone would feel OK about that, but that’s not my decision.”

Of course, the twist to LaJoie’s close contact also is that it’s the first time a Cup driver has been out without a positive test (which happened to Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon last year).

“It’s a tough, unfortunate situation, but it’s part of what makes COVID-19 such a very impactful virus,” Tyler Reddick said. “You can go days and days and days and test negative, negative, negative and still have a good chance over a period of time where you could then become positive and infect a lot of people.”

Though NASCAR President Steve Phelps has said he wants drivers to advocate for vaccination and get their shots, there have been no signs that COVID-19 testing or vaccines would become mandatory.

In a sport that’s built around the rugged individualism and resourcefulness of being a racer, any move by NASCAR to require vaccinations likely would be met by blowback from drivers who typically have found through embracing independence that often can border on bullheaded.

“There’s no real facts that say vaccinating or unvaccinated is really any different these days,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I’m really happy that they haven’t went down the mandatory road (of vaccinations) because I don’t think that’s fair from any perspective at all. I just don’t think it’s fair you can force someone to do something that they don’t want to do. If they want to take the chance, they take the chance.

“We see other sports leagues doing that. You can’t play if you don’t get vaccinated. So it’s a controversial subject obviously. I’m happy with the route NASCAR is taking. I think they’re being as smart and safe as possible. I don’t think they’re being careless in any way. They’re putting a lot of effort into it just like they did last year, and if you look at what we were able to do last year coming back before anyone and finishing our season when nobody thought we could, I think they’ve done a great job of making the right decisions, and I think everybody in our industry has done a great job of trying to take care of each other and be as safe as possible.”

NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN - AUGUST 22: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, walks on stage during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 22, 2021 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Despite the call last week, there still is some misinformation about the impact of vaccination, though.

During Sunday’s media sessions, several drivers referred to there being only a “two-day difference” between the waiting period for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated when it’s actually four days (vaccinated drivers can be cleared by a test in three to five days after exposure; unvaccinated drivers must wait seven days with a negative test on the fifth day).

“The policy is so fuzzy and X amount of days and X amount of hours and X amounts of tests,” Bell said. “So I don’t really understand it all.”

Even though he didn’t necessarily agree with all of the polciies, Logano said he still respected them. “What do I know? I’m a race car driver,” he said. “I drive in circles. I don’t study COVID stuff. I do know what the protocol is, and I need to adjust to that.”

What drivers are doing: There seems to be a blend of rapid reactions and status quo to last week’s news.

Logano said he has cleared his schedule of all public appearances for the foreseeable future. Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) both said their teams have changed policies to move any sponsor visits out of indoor suites.

Chase Elliott said he already had been limiting his visibility.

“I feel like we’ve been on that side of things just until we kind of get a better idea of where things are going and what the landscape is,” he said. “We’re fortunate to still have jobs and still come to work every week and be able to do what we love to do. So I think we’re all very fortunate just to be here. There’s a lot of people that aren’t. I recognize that first and foremost.

“From my end, I’ve tried to be smart about where you go and what you do and who you’re around. But man, I don’t know how you just completely eliminate the possibility of you getting sick. I just don’t know how you do that. There’s just way too many ways you can get COVID or just get sick in general. By inadvertently being around somebody that may not know they have it. It’s a tricky situation, and I don’t really know how else to put it.”

During a weeklong visit to his native Michigan, Erik Jones threw out the first pitch for a Detroit Tigers game, announced his new foundation in Flint and also attended the Woodward Dream Cruise in downtown Detroit.

“We’ve done a good job of keeping everyone spaced out at events, so I didn’t feel concerned about it,” he said.

Before his victory Sunday at Michigan, Ryan Blaney said he had made no changes to his schedule. “I just try to be as safe as I can and do the same things I’ve been doing for a year and a half,” he said. “That’s the best thing you can do. Whatever happens, happens. The best thing you can do is do what you’re doing, try to stay safe and social distance and stay as healthy as you can.”

What drivers will do next: While it seems likely more drivers will get vaccinated, it’s unlikely to be revealed.

Aside from Logano, only Tyler Reddick and William Byron confirmed Sunday at Michigan that they had been vaccinated. At least seven other drivers demurred when asked or preemptively said they would not be disclosing their vaccination status.

“That’s not a topic of conversation I’m interested in having,” said Almirola, who noted that NASCAR medical and infield care staff are aware of drivers’ statuses.

Could the calculus change, though, for drivers weighing the benefits of getting vaccinated as Logano did before Michigan?

“I don’t know,” Chase Elliott said. “That’s tough. I view it as a personal thing, right? I think it’s a personal decision for everybody. And just as it’s a personal decision. I think it’s personal whether or not you want to share that with people or how you want to go about voicing that. We all have a voice. Sometimes we have a bigger voice than we might realize, so I’ve always tried to keep my private life and my health and all the things that I do day to day, a lot of them I keep to myself, and this being one of them.

“So I’m not sure … I don’t think anyone knows what the right answer is or how you navigate this properly. So for me, I’m going to make my decisions with the information I have available to the best of my ability. And I’m going to keep those things to myself.”

Down and dirty

There has been no better team in Cup this season on 550 horsepower package tracks than Hendrick Motorsports. So it raised an eyebrow when points leader Kyle Larson said he was glad that only three of the final 11 races are on 550 hp intermediate tracks similar to Michigan.

NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN - AUGUST 22: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Cincinnati Chevrolet, walks on stage during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 22, 2021 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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“You don’t really get to race here,” Larson said. “You kind of just race on the restarts and race at the end. Other than that, you’re just trying not to race so you don’t get stalled out.”

But hasn’t Hendrick been so good at these tracks?

“We’ve been good at every track,” he said with a smile. “Yeah.”

What kept Larson happy last week was nonstop dirt racing after his prestigious Knoxville Nationals victory in the four days prior to Michigan. He won three more times between two Midget races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dirt oval and Dirt Late Model events at Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania and Sharon Speedway in Ohio.

“I chose those ones just because logistically it works out really well,” he said. “I ran Williams Grove Friday and had a four-hour drive to Hartford, Ohio, which is only three and a half hours from (Michigan International Speedway). I don’t have to get on an airplane, fly and risk travel stuff going wrong. So I can just drive and get sleep, good sleep, all that. Most of the time, I pick the race around logistics.”

Larson said he has no dirt races this week but will have “a handful” before the playoffs begin. The open-wheel racing schedule will tail off in the fall, but Larson said he still was open to running dirt during the playoffs.

Spotter swap

The spotter swap that began at Michigan between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano was about best friends as much as business. Logano has known former No. 2 spotter Coleman Pressley for more than 20 years.

“We talk every day about what life and racing,” Logano said before the Michigan race. “When Brad made his decision to move on (to Roush Fenway Racing next season), Penske didn’t want to lose Coleman. This was the best thing for our team and really a good thing for Brad as well. I think this is a win-win on both sides.

“The connection I have with Coleman is something pretty rare across the field. Where you kind of know what each other is thinking without even saying it. He knows how to connect and tell me what I need, so I think it’ll be a successful pairing for those reasons. I would argue TJ and Brad have the same thing. It took a long time to make this change because you’re nervous to jeopardize a relationship over a job. You’re working with friends becomes sometimes a little tough.”

Keselowski has been friends for nearly 15 years with TJ Majors, who had been spotting since 2018 for Logano after a long run with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We were in an interesting situation with the team change and shuffles and all that going on, and the spotters’ contracts were all in different positions and trying to get alignment on it, and I think it ended up working out in a really good way for all parties,” Keselowski said. “So I’ve had a lot of good success with Coleman Pressley and proud of that history we had and look forward to doing the same with TJ. I feel like I’m looking at having the No. 1 spotter in the sport here, so that’s a big kind of get for me. Not just now but in the years to come.”

An ode to AJA

Is the most popular storyline in NASCAR currently in the Xfinity Series?

After hearing the fans’ reaction to AJ Allmendinger’s victory Saturday at Michigan, it certainly seems the feel-good story of the 2021 season.

Though it also helped that the winner earned his roars of approval by channeling a Helio Castroneves-style catchfence victory climb ... before electing to stop a little short of the four-time Indy 500 winner’s famously high peaks.

“Since I saw Helio on Monday at the Meyer Shank (Racing) golf tournament there, I was feeling like I still had some of that energy from Helio,” Allmendinger said. “I know I have a lot of energy, but he surpasses me by a lot. So I wasn’t going to go all the way to the top of the fence, because I wasn’t quite confident in my climbing ability. So I gave it like a half-Helio and then made sure I got back down.”

Allmendinger is on an all-time high during his first full-time season in the Xfinity Series (and his first in NASCAR since 2018). He already has a career-best three victories this year and has emerged as the primary challenger to defending series champion Austin Cindric. He also scored his biggest victory in NASCAR in the first Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

A week later, Michigan was the continuation of a remarkable career arc that started with a dreadful Cup rookie season (missing 19 of 36 races in 2007). Allmendinger, 39, hung on through a 2012 firing by Team Penske for a positive drug test and returned to win his first Cup race in 2014 … and then waited five years until his next checkered flag in a NASCAR national series.

He celebrates every victory as if it’s his last, which is a combination of his effervescent personality and an appreciation for having emerged from many valleys during the past 14 years.

“I spent a lot of years in my career in NASCAR barely sniffing a win, not even close to it,” he said. “So I don’t get tired of (celebrating).”

Nor are crowds getting tired of watching after his inspirational and memorable journey.

Witness the Michigan fans who screamed “AJ! AJ! AJ!” for a few minutes Saturday after he burst from his No. 16 Chevrolet.

NASCAR: Xfinity Series Race

Aug 21, 2021; Brooklyn, MI, USA; Xfinity Series driver AJ Allmendinger (16) reacts after winning the New Holland 250 at Michigan International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

“When they’re chanting my name, it means so much to me,” Allmendinger said. “I think more than anything, and all of you that have covered me, good and bad, what you see is what you get. You see my emotion. You see the love that I have for the race teams that I drive for, and especially for Kaulig Racing.

“It means the world to me to get these opportunities, and when you win, you need to celebrate it. That’s how I’ve always been. I love what I do and when it’s going well, because I know when it’s going bad, it’s really bad and can be miserable. So just enjoy it. That’s what (Kaulig Racing president) Chris Rice has pounded into my head. Just be a part of the team and keep making us better.

“Sometimes it may not seem like it because of how outgoing I can be, but there’s a lot of times I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself. It’s like I’m always trying to prove to myself that I belong here. So it’s one of those things that I have a lot of passion for the fans, for the sport, for enjoying it and maybe that resonates with people. What you see is what you get. And that’s the way it’s always going to be.”