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Sports Opinion: First NASCAR championship in Phoenix was missing several thousand things

04:45  09 november  2020
04:45  09 november  2020 Source:   usatoday.com

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It’s a nightmare for those who plan events, big and small.

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What if people don’t show up?

Or, more in keeping with 2020, what if they can’t?

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Few, if any, areas attract more big sporting events than the Phoenix metro area. And we stage them as well as anyone.

Super Bowls. Final Fours. All-Star Games. College football championships. Bowl games. Golf tournaments.

And on Sunday, for the first time in the Valley, the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Two things were obvious Sunday at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona:

A) As convoluted as NASCAR rules are to qualify to be one the final four drivers to compete for the title, the championship race is beautifully simplistic. Finish ahead of the other three and you win. Chase Elliott did that fairly easily on Sunday.

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B) While exciting and important, even championship events suffer when fans can’t attend.

Race car drivers obviously don’t feed off the crowd. Along with bowling, it's one of the few sports in which the noise of the competition is louder than that made by people who bought tickets to watch it.

But few other sports make the fans feel as much a part of the day’s events than NASCAR. And if there’s a more fan-friendly venue in sports than Phoenix Raceway, I haven’t seen it.

Chase Elliott celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway. © Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports Chase Elliott celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway.

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The last time a race was held there, a March day 35 years ago (maybe it was just 35 weeks), the grandstands that seat around 45,000 were nearly full.

And many of those in attendance were able to tour the garages in the infield, with only short railing separating them from the crews of their favorites cars and drives.

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In normal times, fans were able to take in short concerts by, say, Blake Shelton and Pit Bull. Somehow, they sounded just fine together, too.

On Sunday, capacity was limited to around 11,000 in the grandstands, some RVs parked on site, seating on hillsides and a limited number of tables for four in the infield area.

a group of people posing for the camera: NASCAR fans watch the race from the stands during the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 8, 2020. © Patrick Breen, Patrick Breen/The Republic NASCAR fans watch the race from the stands during the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 8, 2020.

“It’s definitely different,” Julie Giese, president of Phoenix Raceway, said Sunday in a small room in the middle of the raceway’s media center. The sounds of racing could still be heard. “It’s a lot less people than we hoped when we made the announcement (as the championship race host) but I’m grateful we’ve provided a safe environment for everyone to enjoy the race, the first championship in Phoenix.

“It’s new for all of us. Protocols are different. How we set up is different. But we look forward to the day when we can get back to the interaction, the Phoenix experience that we’re known for is there.”

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It’s difficult to be optimistic that day will come anytime soon. COVID-19 numbers are spiking throughout the country, and many experts have warned of a bleak winter ahead.

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In terms of attendance, our next big event, the Waste Management Phoenix Open the first week of February, will look a lot like Phoenix Raceway did this weekend. Limited capacity. A lot less fun.

The actual racing on Sunday did not disappoint. There weren't the number of lead changes and numerous restarts featured in last spring's race, but the one-mile oval provided NASCAR the excitement it desired when it moved its championship race from Miami to Phoenix through at least 2021.

That excitement started even before the race when Elliott’s car failed two inspections, and he had to start the race at the rear.

But Elliott, his crew and his car had peaked at the right time. They qualified for the championship by winning last week at Martinsville, Virginia, and it was obvious early in Sunday’s race that he was at the wheel of the best car.

It didn’t take him long to make up ground and with 41 laps to go, he was in first for good.

The only path to catching him was a caution flag and a restart. With a short straightway followed by two quick turns, restarts are always tricky and precarious in Phoenix. You have to be able to accelerate like Kyler Murray and then merge as aggressively as the guy who cut you off on the I-10 yesterday afternoon.

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That didn’t happen. There were no cautions, no disasters. And Elliott, 24, won his first Cup championship.

He wasn’t the only winner on Sunday, according to Brad Keselowski, who finished second. NASCAR was able to complete its schedule in a year where so much happened that "the only thing that was left was an asteroid strike."

After its first Cup championship, Phoenix Raceway received positive reviews from the drivers. Although Keselowski said opinions might vary for one obvious reason.

“If you had a fast car, you probably liked it more than if you didn’t.”

Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on twitter @kentsomers.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Opinion: First NASCAR championship in Phoenix was missing several thousand things

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