Chris Larsen

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Friday 5: NASCAR’s decision to compete stands out among other sports

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UPDATE: NASCAR announced at 11:37 a.m. ET Friday that this weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and next weekend’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway have been postponed. No makeup dates have been set. 

MORE: President Trump to declare national emergency to combat coronavirus 

By the time the clock hit midnight, ending an unprecedented day and beginning a Friday the 13th, a new reality emerged because of COVID-19.

No NCAA Tournament. No Major League Baseball. No NBA. No NHL. No MLS. No Formula One race in Australia.

What was left? Primarily NASCAR and IndyCar.

While some NASCAR fans bristle at the notion that their sport be more similar to stick-and-ball sports, on this day, NASCAR was not.

With other sports postponing or canceling events, NASCAR announced plans to compete beginning today at Atlanta Motor Speedway with the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. No fans will be allowed to attend. Same for IndyCar in St. Pete.

Thursday night, though, the NTT IndyCar Series announced that it had eliminated Friday’s two 45-minute practice sessions. Instead, the weekend will begin Saturday for that series. At the end of its release on the updated weekend schedule, IndyCar stated: “Due to the fluidity of the situation, more modifications may be forthcoming and will be announced at the appropriate time.”

Things can change. NASCAR’s statement Thursday announcing plans to race without fans started: “At this time …” and ended with: “We will work with public health officials as we determine future scheduling beyond these events.”

Plans remain for next weekend’s NASCAR races at Homestead-Miami Speedway to be held without fans.

But how much longer can this go? Or will this go? There are indications that other sports are prepared to be idle for weeks.

In a letter to fans Thursday night, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated: “This hiatus will last at least 30 days and we intend to resume the season, if and when, it becomes safe for. all concerned.”

Major League Baseball announced Thursday that it would delay the regular season “by at least two weeks due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.” Opening day had been scheduled for March 26.

The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, turning March Madness into March Sadness, and all spring sport championships, including some events that would not be held until after Memorial Day.

PGA Golf, which stated Thursday that The Players Championship would continue with no fans, reversed course and announced at 10 p.m. ET that it was canceling the event. That means every PGA Tour event is canceled up to the Masters, which is scheduled from April 9-12.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated Thursday that there were 1,215 total cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive awaiting test results) in the United States with 36 deaths. The CDC stated that 42 states and the District of Columbia reported cases.

The CDC stated that Georgia, where NASCAR races this weekend, had reported 31 cases of COVID-19 (both confirmed and presumptive pending test results). Only Washington (366 cases), New York (217), California (175), Massachusetts (95) and Colorado (34) had more cases than Georgia.

Should NASCAR race this weekend and be one of the few sports to compete? To some sports-starved fans, NASCAR (and IndyCar) will be viewed as a hero for doing so. Others, though, may question both sports for holding an event during a pandemic.

Either way, today begins with NASCAR competitors scheduled to be on track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

2. What’s next?

Once the NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season because of COVID-19, momentum began to build for other sports to follow, leading to Thursday’s string of cancellations and postponements.

With NASCAR continuing, many questions remain. Beyond plans to race at Atlanta and Miami the next two weeks, then what?

Both Texas Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on March 29, and Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup race on April 5, issued statements via social media. Texas Motor Speedway’s statement noted that track officials are “closely monitoring facts and in frequent communications with public health officials. We are currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”

Bristol Motor Speedway stated Thursday that “there are no changes to our NASCAR race weekend April 2-5. Bristol Motor Speedway is working closely with our state and local health officials in preparation for our events.”

3. Bounty Race

With NASCAR stating it will race this weekend, the focus will turn to what is one of the most anticipated Truck Series races in years.

Kevin Harvick started the excitement by offering a $50,000 bonus for any Cup driver who could beat Kyle Busch in a Truck race. Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV and Outdoors, added another $50,000.

Busch has won his last seven Truck starts.

To collect the $100,000, a full-time Cup driver does not have to win. They only have to finish better than Busch but cannot do so by unfairly roughing him up. If more than one full-time Cup driver places ahead of Busch, the one who finishes highest wins all the money.

Cup regulars entered in Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta are Chase Elliott, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole.

But that bounty left Truck series regulars out. So, Halmar International and truck owner Chris Larsen are putting up a $50,000 bounty for any Truck series regular.

To collect the $50,000 from Larsen, a Truck series regular needs to win the race. Also, Busch must be running at the finish. The bounty is for Atlanta but would continue to Busch’s next race, Homestead, if he wins.

Should Busch win at Atlanta, Larsen and Hal-mar will donate $25,000 to the Bundle of Joy fund, which is a part of the Kyle Busch Foundation and provides funds for families struggling to conceive.

4. Ready to collect

Although Johnny Sauter could collect a $50,000 bonus for beating Kyle Busch and winning Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he’s not focused on the bounty.

Johnny Sauter has finished second, third and third in his last three Atlanta Truck races. (Photo by Adrian Garcia/Getty Images)

“There’s no greater thing in the world or feeling,” Sauter told NBC Sports of winning. “Even though I’ve been fortunate enough to win a lot of races, it never gets old. … That’s what we do this for, at least that’s what I do it for. It’s not for bounty money or anything else. Winning races is awesome. So when you have trucks that are capable of doing it, especially where we’re at right now, I feel like we’re going to win quite a few races this year.”

Sauter, the 2016 Truck champion, has finished no worse than third in the last three Truck races at Atlanta. He’s also off to a strong start this season, placing seventh at Daytona and second to Busch at Las Vegas.

While there will be plenty of attention on Busch, Sauter doesn’t focus on such things.

“It’s just another person to beat,” Sauter said. “There’s no question that Kyle brings his ‘A’ game, not only with himself but with the program and the whole deal. A lot of people, I think, it bothers them that he runs in the Truck Series. Me personally, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. I know why he does it, and I think it’s good for his business and his company to run the Truck Series personally.

“When I look at him, he’s beatable. We’ve beaten him before. There’s no question to beat him you’re going to have to have everything going the way it needs to go. But at the end of the day when you do beat him, it feels good, but I like beating everybody.”

If not Sauter, another candidate among the Truck Series regulars to beat Busch would be 2018 champion Brett Moffitt.

Moffitt won at Atlanta in 2018 — the last time a Truck Series regular won there (Busch won last year’s truck race there).

Brett Moffitt won the 2018 Atlanta Truck race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“To have a shot for us to go win 50 grand from Chris Larsen, I think that makes it all the more exciting,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “I think it’s kind of Chris Larsen’s way of saying our guys are talented too … that they can run with any of the Cup guys that come down here.

“Obviously we haven’t done a good job of that in the last seven races that Kyle has been in, but I feel it can be done.

“I have confidence that we can beat him on the right day. With his talent and the amount of effort he puts into his organization at KBM, that Toyota helps him out with, it’s a tough combination to beat. He’s proven that.

“I think it can be done. I’ve had a few races over the last couple of years with him where I feel like if things would have fallen a little differently, I would have a shot at it, but I’m sure many others have felt the same way. We have yet to deliver on it and I understand that. We’ll just keep putting our best foot forward and go after it.”

5. Streakin’

Brad Keselowski has finished no worse than second in the last three Atlanta Cup races. He won in 2017, finished second in 2018 and won again last year.

Team Penske already has won two races this season with Joey Logano at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney has had among the best cars in three of the first four races. Could it be Keselowski’s time to shine this weekend?

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