INDIANAPOLIS — Mimicking what his hero Tony Stewart twice did at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chase Briscoe climbed the fence after winning Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the road course.
But unlike Stewart, who looked out to a sea of fans bathing him in cheers, Briscoe saw only empty gray bleachers and heard only the shouts of his crew members who joined him on the ascent.
The culmination of a historic doubleheader with the NTT IndyCar Series and the Xfinity Series also meant the end of a day — and a July 4 at that — unlike any other at the famed speedway.
No fans at NASCAR races have become common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sight — and lack of sound — at Indy was stark.
Sunday’s Cup race will not have fans. It also will not have seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who announced Friday he and his wife have contracted the coronavirus.
Johnson says he is asymptomatic but admits he has more questions than answers about how he and his wife got the virus and when he’ll be able to return to racing. Sunday was to have been his final Cup start in a race he’s won four times.
Johnson will be missed. So will be the fans. Just as they were Saturday.
The fans provide a soundtrack to any event, even a race where engine noise dominates. There was no roar from the crowd when the command to start engines was made. No cheers for the winner when he emerged from his car in victory lane. No oohs and ahhs when the top four cars in the Xfinity race sailed down the long front straightaway into a sharp right-hand turn with two laps left, dueling for the win.
The only sound came from the engines echoing off the canyon of empty seats.
Even in the smallest settings, interactions were missed. When Scott Dixon won the IndyCar race earlier in the day, his crew, unable to be in victory lane because of protocols, stood on a stairwell 20 feet above him and clapped.
When Briscoe won, there was no family to greet him. Two years ago his father had tears seeing Briscoe drive at Indy. One could only imagine what his reaction would have been Saturday.
“My family is probably crying at home,” said Briscoe, an Indiana native. “I was thinking about that the last couple of laps. That is tough. I wish they could have been here to experience it. It is something that may not ever happen again. It is definitely bittersweet to win without them here.”
If he wins again at Indy, good chance it could be with Stewart-Haas Racing. Greg Zipadelli, SHR’s competition director, served as Briscoe’s interim crew chief because Richard Boswell was serving the final race of a four-race suspension and voiced his support for Briscoe.
“I think he is still young and has a lot to learn, but I am very, very impressed with how quick he is learning how to race these stock cars,” Zipadelli said. “I hope he is a part of Stewart-Haas for a long period of time.”
What makes Briscoe — only the second driver to win five of the first 13 races of a season in the Xfinity Series — stand out?
“He is able to dig deep,” Zipadelli said. “There are some people that when it is time to close, I see that a lot in him, he finds a little bit extra. He has a lot of confidence but isn’t getting cocky, which I love. Most of all he is just a good race car driver.”
While IndyCar had run on this course, this was new for Xfinity Series. Briscoe had prepared since February for this race, spending time weekly on the Ford simulator driving the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course. The training came through as Briscoe battled AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley for the lead late.
Even though Haley finished second to Briscoe, he still enjoyed the afternoon.
“I have zero complaints about the Indy road course,” Haley said. “I thought it was an amazing day
“When the fans are back, I think it’s going to be better.”
Briscoe said he can’t wait for fans to be back at this track and elsewhere.
“They are the reason you celebrate and the last couple of times I didn’t really celebrate because without the fans I don’t get hyped up,” he said. “Here I was obviously excited. I wish there were fans here.”
Even so, Briscoe would still have a celebration.
A former dirt track racer, Briscoe planned to visit a dirt track Saturday night within an hour’s drive of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“My little sister has decided she wants to try to drive a race car,” Briscoe said. “At the end of the night she is going to drive a mini-sprint around there for 20 or 30 laps. I am going to head there and see a lot of my friends I don’t get to see anymore and hang out with my dad and family.”