Friday 5: NASCAR fans on front lines of a pandemic

Photo: Michael Palmer
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After his 12-hour overnight shift as an emergency room nurse ends, after witnessing the life-and-death struggles coronavirus patients face, after the anger, sorrow and joy he and his colleagues share, Michael Palmer goes home and tries to sleep.

When he awakes, he FaceTimes 9-year-old son Mikey “so I can have that motivation and realize that there’s still good in life.”

Soon after, Palmer returns to work at a suburban Detroit hospital for another 12 hours of highs and lows. But there is something that separates him from his co-workers. It’s the No. 48 Palmer writes on his mask and tapes to his face shield, showing that he’s a Jimmie Johnson fan.

Palmer is among many NASCAR fans who work in hospitals, medical facilities and ambulances across the country helping those afflicted by coronavirus. A Chase Elliott fan and his Kyle Busch-rooting wife are EMTs in South Carolina. Another Elliott fan is an ER nurse in Florida. A Matt DiBenedetto fan works in a California maternity ward that has treated infected mothers. A Clint Bowyer fan waits for her symptoms to cease so she can return to work at a New York hospital.

With most Americans under stay-at-home orders, medical professionals treat patients each day amidst the threat of catching the virus. Palmer, 37, turns to racers for inspiration.

Michael Palmer has been an emergency room nurse for 12 years. (Photo: Michael Palmer)

“You know the race car driver mentality?” he said. “They know that there is some sort of degree that they could be in a bad wreck and lose their life, but they don’t think about it. They just get in and they race. That’s kind of how I look at my job. Yes, there is a high risk of contracting corona being on the front lines, but it’s not something I think about.”

Instead, the former firefighter, who has been an ER nurse for 12 years, focuses elsewhere.

“The reason why we do what we do,” Palmer said, “is because we have a love for humans.”

Palmer’s job never has been more challenging. Michigan has emerged as one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots. Palmer’s hospital is located among the counties at the epicenter of the virus’ spread in that state.

“The first week was very rough,” Palmer said of the 60-hour work week. “Just from the get-go for the first seven days … trying to figure out what is the best way to protect yourself, what is the best way to protect others. You don’t really know what is going on. We were setting up tents. The hospital was in a complete lockdown. No visitors were allowed, and you’re seeing people that are coming in that are sick. We’ve lost people.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said this week that she expects the state’s coronavirus cases to peak by the end of April or early May. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday that the state had 21,504 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,076 deaths. Michigan ranks third among states in confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because Palmer is on the frontlines, he has kept away from his son to avoid infecting him and his son’s mother.

Palmer visited his son last Sunday for the first time in three weeks, delivering an Easter basket and gifts since he will work this weekend. Palmer got his son a Kevin Harvick diecast car and hauler. Harvick is among Mikey’s favorite drivers, along with Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Elliott and Busch.

Father and son stood outside several feet apart, abiding by social distancing practices. For an hour, they talked and watched some of the televised virtual Bristol race.

They plan to be in Bristol Motor Speedway in September. Palmer gave his son tickets to the track’s night race as a Christmas present. They first went to a race together on Father’s Day 2017 at Michigan International Speedway.

Mikey Palmer with Jimmie Johnson at Michigan International Speedway on Father’s Day in 2017. (Photo: Michael Palmer)

Naturally, father dressed his son in Johnson attire with a hat and shirt that day. Johnson signed Mikey’s hat before the driver’s meeting. After the meeting, Mikey hoped to get a picture with Johnson but a crowd encircled the seven-time Cup champion.

“Jimmie actually saw (Mikey),” Palmer said. “He stopped, turned around. He put his arm around (Mikey’s) shoulder and pulled him forward and said, ‘Everyone step back, I want to take a picture with my biggest fan here today.’

“I’m glad I had sunglasses on. I had tears in my eyes.”

For now, it is only Palmer’s eyes that patients and colleagues can see when he works. He is covered in gowns, masks, gloves and other gear in the emergency room. Palmer and others work to combat coronavirus and help return the world to a normal way of life as soon as possible.

Without racing, weekends aren’t the same for Palmer.

“Every Sunday or Saturday night, my home, you felt like it was an event,” he said. “It just feels like that is missing now and you don’t realize how much you miss it until it’s gone.”

Palmer can’t wait until the next NASCAR race.

“It doesn’t matter where it’s at,” he said, “whenever they get back, it’s going to be good to see them on track.”

A SCENE AN EMT WON’T FORGET

In more than 20 years as a firefighter or EMT, Chad Pleasant has had his share of emergency runs that still impact him.

“There are days where if I’m at work or if I’m at home … and I happen to ride through an area where I know I ran into a specifically bad call that didn’t have a good outcome, no matter what I’m doing … when I hit a certain spot, it comes back,” Pleasant said. “It’s fresh.

“When it comes to day-to-day, you just rely on your partner to get you through the shift and you lift each other up and you just keep going and keep pushing because somebody else is going to need your help.”

One particular scene during this pandemic sticks with Pleasant.

Part of his role is to transfer patients between medical facilities primarily in and around Spartanburg, South Carolina. He recently transported an elderly woman to a rehabilitation center. The patient’s daughter met them at the rehab center but could not hold her mother’s hand or be near for fear of possibly infecting her.

Chad Pleasant served as a firefighter before becoming an EMT. (Photo: Chad Pleasant)

“It was a little sad for both of us, my partner and I,” Pleasant said of witnessing the moment.

The daughter stood about 10 feet away from her mother.

“She took a picture of her,” Pleasant said, “and said she didn’t know when she would get to see her. Things like that kind of bother you a little bit. These patients that are elderly, you never know if this is the last time they see their family or not.”

The 37-year-old Pleasant and his wife Heather both are EMTs. They have three children: Abigail (16 years old), Chase (13) and Greycie (seven). Protecting each other and their children from potential coronavirus exposure has led to some extreme measures.

Earlier this week, Pleasant’s final call of his shift involved transporting a coronavirus patient. After that was completed and the ambulance cleaned, Pleasant went home. Before he entered his house, he removed his shoes, leaving them outside, and stripped, putting his uniform in a garbage bag. Pleasant took the bag in the house, put his uniform in the washing machine and showered before seeing his family. It’s a routine many health care workers now do when they return home so they don’t infect family members.

While home, he looks ahead to the rest of the NASCAR season. Pleasant — who was a Dale Earnhardt fan, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan and now a Chase Elliott fan — has not been to a Cup race since 2012 but had tickets for his family for next month’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was to be his youngest daughter’s first race. Now? Pleasant isn’t sure.

But what Pleasant hopes is to be able to attend next year’s Daytona 500.

“I’ve been there, and I’ve been on the track,” he said of a summer 1999 trip that included a speedway tour, “but I’ve never seen cars on track.”

It would be a scene he would not forget.

PREPARING FOR A SURGE

Brandon Nobles, an ER nurse for nearly two years, spends his shifts cross-training in the intensive care unit to prepare for an expected surge of coronavirus patients at his Tallahassee, Florida hospital.

“Right now it’s the calm before the storm,” the 30-year-old said.

One forecast, based on a University of Pennsylvania model and released Thursday, suggested that hospitals in and around Tallahassee could run out of intensive care unit beds by mid-May and total hospital beds a couple of weeks later.

But such forecasts can change based on social distancing, testing and other factors.

Brandon Nobles and wife Jamie at 2019 Daytona 500.( Photo: Brandon Nobles)

“The biggest thing with this is it is kind of an eerie unknown,” Nobles said.

Because of how contagious the virus is, hospital workers are covered in protective garb and one can only see their eyes. Not seeing a co-worker’s facial expressions is striking to Nobles.

“It’s hard to tell what type of day somebody is having just by looking at their eyes,” he said. “Not being able to see their reaction to things and their smile, their facial expressions. We’re all covered up from head to toe, so going 12 hours, which is our shifts, and just to be able to tell what type of day they’re having based on their eyes, it’s definitely different. You’re used to seeing people smile and see people laugh.”

That’s the new reality in hospitals and elsewhere with the CDC recommending people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

Nobles looks forward to when such measures aren’t needed and life can return to normal, which would include racing.

He became a Jeff Gordon fan during Gordon’s dominance in the late 90s but it wasn’t until July 2000 that he saw his first race in person when he went to Daytona International Speedway.’

“All it took was one race,” said Nobles, now a Chase Elliott fan, “and I’ve been hooked ever since.”

NEW SKILLS NEEDED

While many in hospitals treat patients during their most difficult times, Cindi Scott is with patients during some of their best times. She’s a maternity nurse at a Southern California hospital.

Yet, even there the pandemic’s effects are felt. Some hospitals limit maternity rooms to one guest. In some cases, the expectant mother is alone because her partner must watch other children at home. Family and friends who could have helped are kept away by the threat of COVID-19.

Cindi Scott with Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Leonard Wood at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Cindi Scott)

“They’re by themselves and this is supposed to be one of the best days of their lives,” Scott said of some expectant mothers. “We’re trying to be everything for them besides being their caregiver.”

That leaves Scott with expanded duties from holding the expectant mother’s hand to coaching and offering encouragement before the baby’s birth.

Once the baby arrives and is healthy, Scott’s role changes.

The 48-year-old, who has spent 22 years as a nurse, becomes a filmmaker. When there are no family members in the room, she’ll hold the phone so others on FaceTime can see the baby. Other times, Scott becomes an IT person, setting up a Zoom conference so friends and family members of the mother can see the child.

But Scott and her colleagues also tend to expectant mothers who have coronavirus or are presumed to have it pending test results. That creates challenges from limiting who has contact with that patient to performing necessary duties in a particular time frame to limit exposure. Before treating such patients, a nurse is observed putting on all their protective personal equipment to ensure no contamination.

All this makes early March seem more than five weeks ago. That’s when Scott and a few female friends camped in the infield at Auto Club Speedway and watched Alex Bowman win the Cup race. They’ve also attended races at Phoenix Raceway. Once racing returns, Scott would like to plan a girls trip to Bristol or Martinsville.

“It’s a girls trip and it’s fun,” said Scott, who was a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan before becoming a Matt DiBenedetto fan. “The feel of the race cars when you’re there at the track, it’s unlike anything else.”

WAITING TO HELP

Amanda Kidd can’t wait for the coming days. The interventional radiologic technologist continues to shows some symptoms of coronavirus even though she tested negative for it.

Until all symptoms are gone, she’s stuck at home instead of working at a hospital near Watkins Glen International.

“It sucks,” the 31-year-old said. “Especially when a lot of your colleagues are there and you are seeing what they’re going through and then you’re stuck at home and not able to help.”

There has been one way she has helped her colleagues. When they set up a drive-thru testing site, they called her to be the first one to see how it would work. She drove to the site, rolled down the window and had a swab in her nostril.

“It feels like they’re tickling your brain,” she said.

Kidd said she hopes to be symptom-free and back to work next week doing what she can to help others.

And she looks forward to being back at Watkins Glen to watch racing. She was a fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and then became a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. Now, she likes Clint Bowyer. She includes Bubba Wallace and Kevin Harvick among her favorites but notes that “if I had to pick out one to hang out with, Clint Bowyer would be at the top of the list.”

While at home, she has had virtual watch parties with friends for the NASCAR iRacing events. They’ve communicated through FaceTime, but she longs to see the real action and camp at the Glen.

“I just can’t wait to get back to the track,” she said. “Be around the cars and the people. I think everybody is kind of on the edge of their seat just ready to get back because they miss the community and being there together.”

It can’t come soon enough. That’s also how Kidd feels about her recovery, so she can again help people in need.

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Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”