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NASCAR’s Steve Phelps: May 17 Darlington race an “opportunity”

Krista Voda, Kyle Petty, and Dale Jarrett discuss the planned Darlington return on May 17, detail the health guidelines that will be in place, preview how the racing will look and consider what other leagues might learn.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps says the sport’s return May 17 at Darlington Raceway gives it an “opportunity” to reach new fans.

Phelps discussed that and other topics in an appearance Tuesday on the Dale Jr. Download with host Dale Earnhardt Jr. The show airs at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.

NASCAR last raced March 8 at Phoenix Raceway before it postponed eight Cup races because of the COVID-19 outbreak. NASCAR will be the first major sport to return in the U.S. The Cup Series will run two races at Darlington (May 17 and 20) before competing May 24 and May 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Asked about being able to test new concepts — including midweek races — as NASCAR looks to run the remaining 32 Cup points races this season, Phelps said:

“I think it’s pretty cool to look at a Wednesday race. I know it’s something that we’ve been looking to do for a while and test out. Now we have the opportunity to test it out and see how it’s going to go. It is different, right, to be going to a racetrack for a Cup race, two races in a row, but I think everyone is starved to get back to racing.

“You look at the success of the iRacing and the number of eyeballs that it has put out there. We think (resumption of racing) is going to be a really good test for us and a real opportunity for us to not just have our core fans consume the sport like they never have because we haven’t been racing for so long, but also an opportunity for other people to see our sport, sample our sport.

“I think we’re going to have millions of fans that will tune in who otherwise wouldn’t that are going to see how great our sport is. I think we’ll have a potential (number of) lifetime fans that will come out of this really difficult situation that we’re experiencing.”

NASCAR has announced only two weeks of racing for Cup teams through May 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Asked about the rest of the schedule, Phelps told Earnhardt:

“I would say that the schedule is 99% of the way done. We would like to announce a full schedule. The reasons why we can’t do that, part of that has to do with we don’t know if we can get into that particular state or not.

“We know we’re good in the state of South Carolina. We know we’re good in the state of North Carolina. That’s kind of where we stopped just to put a flag in the ground and say, ‘Hey we’re going to move forward with these four races.’

“What we’re determining right now is, obviously, the number of events in Darlington for this year. When the season started, we had one. Now we have three. So we had to figure out where those races are coming from.

“We have some idea, but we’re trying to figure out what that looks like because if you have two additional Darlingtons and one additional Charlotte Motor Speedway, they have to come from some racetrack. So is that coming from a racetrack with two events that will now have one? Those are the things we’re trying to work through right now.”

Phelps also said that NASCAR has consulted Dr. Celine Gounder, who is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. She also serves on the executive committee of the New York City COVID-19 Rapid Response Coalition, which seeks to extend treatment and services to high-risk, chronically ill and underserved New Yorkers in need of at-home care during the pandemic.

Since that time, NASCAR also had input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the medical community and “all kinds of different inputs that allow us to make informed decisions about when you can go back, when it’s safe to go back — because we don’t want to go back and heaven forbid have something happen and then have to stop again. Once we go back, we need to continue down this road and make sure that, again, everyone is safe, the competitors, the safety workers, everyone involved.”