Everyone catch up on their sleep? All right, good. It’s time to go racing again.
After a week off, all eyes are back on Daytona International Speedway, with the green flag set to drop on NASCAR’s 2021 season Tuesday night with the 43rd annual Busch Clash.
The 35-lap shootout on Daytona’s Road Course will kick off a flurry of stock-car activity at the track over the next two weeks that will include 10 points-paying races spread across four series of racing.
“We’re so busy,” said Speedway President Chip Wile. “We just had the Rolex 24 wrap up, and then had seven days to get ready for basically two weeks of activity around here. It’s a lot, but this team has done a tremendous job.”
When is the Daytona 500?
The 63rd running of the Daytona 500 is set for Feb. 14 at 2:30 p.m., but The Great American Race won’t actually end Daytona Speedweeks. Instead, it’ll serve as the halfway point.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions in California, NASCAR made the decision in December to nix the Feb. 21 Cup race at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana) and replace it with a race on Daytona’s Road Course.
The move not only allowed NASCAR to stay in Daytona for two straight weeks, but also keeps the series in Florida for nearly a month. The third race of the season will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway before the haulers head to Las Vegas in the first weekend of March.
Wile said many at the Speedway will also work that Feb. 27-28 weekend in Miami, and then return to Daytona to begin setup for Daytona Supercross.
“Actually for us, having all these back-to-back weekends is a blessing,” he said. “You get into a rhythm, and once you get into that rhythm, you’re in it. It’s hard to explain, but you just get into this event mode. You put your head down and you get the job done.”
Will there be fans?
Even with the added week, the biggest event is still the Daytona 500.
Last week, Wile said there would be roughly 30,000 fans in the grandstands with a few thousand more in the infield, making the 500 the most-attended sporting event since the pandemic began last March.
“Even though we’re going to have limited fans, it still needs to feel like the Daytona 500,” Wile said. “Everything has to be big. Regardless of how many people are here, it’s still our sport’s biggest race.”
While the Speedway doesn’t announce attendance figures, there were an estimated 25,000 fans at last summer’s Coke Zero Sugar 400, and 15,000 at last week’s Rolex 24.
While the COVID protocols were the same for both events — health screenings, temperature checks, mask-wearing — there was one big difference last weekend: fans were once again allowed into the infield Fanzone.
That will again be the case throughout Speedweeks, but access to the garage area, pit-road, the paddock area and the ballfield will once again be closed.
“Is Speedweeks gonna be different than it ever has been? Yes, it’s gonna be different than it ever has been,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps told The News-Journal. “On the day of the Daytona 500, when they do the flyover, it won’t be full, for sure, but it’s going to feel big. There’s going to be an energy level.”
Infield camping, with the exception of GEICO Orange Campgrounds tent camping and GEICO Grounds Green RV, will be available throughout race week.
All campsites will be limited to a maximum of six guests per spot and RVs will need to be self-contained with running water and holding tanks as shower and restroom facilities will be closed.
Because of the capacity restrictions at the 101,500-person venue, some fans who already purchased tickets were re-seated, while others were given full refunds and a 120% credit to any upcoming event at Daytona or NASCAR-owned tracks.
“Over 60% of our customers for the Daytona 500 come out of state,” Wile said. “So it gives them the opportunity to try out any other track that we own. We want to make sure that we’re giving our fans every opportunity to see an event live.”
Tickets for the Daytona 500 on the Speedway’s website are already sold out. The cheapest 500 tickets on secondary markets, like Stub Hub, are currently selling for $251.
Tickets for other Speedweeks events are still available and start at $49 for the Busch Clash, the Thursday Duel races, Friday’s Truck race and Saturday’s Xfinity/ARCA doubleheader.
“We’re going to continue to refine our protocols, but really there aren’t any big changes from the Rolex week to the 500 week,” Wile said. “(The pandemic) is at the forefront of our mind every time we open the venue. We’ll push the envelope, but we have to push the envelope safely.
“The great thing we have is a very, very big venue to be able to host these fans.”
What else is new?
Making Speedweeks plural once again is one of several changes this season.
For starters, that Feb. 21 road race is the first of seven — yes, seven — road course races in 2021.
“The fans have spoken, they want additional road courses,” Phelps said. “I think the new venues for the road courses will be very compelling. If our fans after this season say we’ve gone too far, we’ll pivot to a different direction.”
Along with the usual trips to Sonoma, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte Roval, the series will also head to The Circuit of The Americas Course (Texas) and hold a July 4 race at Road America (Wisconsin). The annual trip to Indianapolis will also be run on the track’s 14-turn Road Course as part of a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader weekend.
Other changes to the 2021 schedule include a dirt race at Bristol, a Mothers Day race at Darlington, Texas Motor Speedway taking over the All-Star race in June, and a Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway.
Daytona will once again host the regular-season finale on Aug. 28.
“They want schedule variation,” Phelps said of the fans. “They’ve been very loud and clear about schedule variation — our fans as well as our media partners.”
NASCAR Silly Season
The schedule is revamped, and your favorite driver may very well be in a new number.
Bubba Wallace left Richard Petty Motorsports to join Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin’s 23XI Racing team. He’ll drive the No. 23 Toyota, while Erik Jones replaces Wallace in the RPM No. 43. Christopher Bell will now drive Jones’ old No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Chase Briscoe got called up the big leagues over at Stewart-Haas, and will replace the now retired Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford. Briscoe won nine races in the Xfinity Series last season. Bowyer is now in the FOX booth, and will call the first half of the season with Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon.
Over at Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Larson is back and will drive the No. 5 Chevy. Larson was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing last spring after using a racial slur during an iRacing event, but was reinstated by NASCAR in the fall.
Alex Bowman, meanwhile, will replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48, while Bowman’s old No. 88 will head to the Hendrick garages until further notice.
Finally, global music icon and Grammy-award winner Pitbull will join Jordan and dip his toe into the world of NASCAR. Last month, he became a co-owner of the newly formed Trackhouse Racing No. 99 team. Daniel Suarez will be the team’s full-time driver.
“Having new ownership is important,” Phelps said. “Having new owners who are visible and stars, that’s a good thing too. We want them to be successful. It’s exciting. There’s a real opportunity here.”
Daytona Speedweeks schedule
Tuesday, Feb. 9: 7 p.m., Cup Series Busch Clash at Daytona
Wednesday, Feb. 10: 7 p.m., Daytona 500 pole qualifying
Thursday, Feb. 11: 7 p.m., Cup Series Duels at Daytona
Friday, Feb. 12: 7:30 p.m., Truck Series NextEra Energy 250
Saturday, Feb. 13: 1:30 p.m., ARCA Series Lucas Oil 200 Driven by General Tires; 5 p.m., Xfinity Series Beef – It’s What’s for Dinner 300
Sunday, Feb. 14: 2:30 p.m., the 63rd running of the Daytona 500
Friday, Feb. 19: 7:30 p.m., Truck Series race at Daytona Road Course
Saturday, Feb. 20: 5 p.m., Xfinity Series race at Daytona Road Course
Sunday, Feb. 21: 3 p.m., Cup Series Race at Daytona Road Course