INDIANAPOLIS – NASCAR's extravagant weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — where the back-and-forth battle between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin should continue — has been rocked by its first driver testing positive for the coronavirus.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson will miss what was supposed to be his final Brickyard 400 as he quarantines following the Friday test result. He was asymptomatic but wife Chani had tested positive, so Johnson had himself checked.
Johnson said he was disappointed and worried about the emotional impact of the positive tests on his young children. He still plans to step away from full-time racing after the season, though not away from the sport.
“Clearly I have this interest in Indy cars, sports cars, and in many other forms of racing so I assume that’s helping me deal with this and not feel like, you know, so I’m having some things taken away from me,” he said Saturday.
NASCAR was one of the first sports to resume competition following the sports shutdown and Sunday will be its 12th Cup race since the May return. Drivers are told to isolate at the race track, limit interaction with their crews and wear masks.
The entire industry stood shoulder-to-shoulder two weeks ago in support of driver Bubba Wallace, and Johnson was front and center and even hugged Wallace after the national anthem at Talladega. Johnson also spent a day this week in Dallara's simulator as preparation for a now-postponed Indy car test.
Johnson on Sunday had hoped to tie Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers with five victories at Indianapolis. Instead, Justin Allgaier will drive the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.
Harvick, meanwhile, will attempt to win a second consecutive Brickyard and a win on Indy's oval would tie NASCAR's points leader with Hamlin, the Daytona 500, at four wins each. The duo has combined for seven victories in 15 Cup races, including four of the last six and consecutive 1-2 finishes last weekend at Pocono.
It's a championship battle in the making and could be a key element in one of NASCAR's crown jewel events.
“We’re winning races, doing the things we need to do right now, running up front,” said Harvick, a two-time Brickyard winner. “When you look at the win column, as long as you’re winning races, that’s what it takes to win championships.”
NASCAR raced at Daytona International Speedway on the July Fourth holiday weekend starting in 1959 but moved it to Indianapolis this year as one of the biggest shakeups to the original 2020 schedule. Indy, now owned by Roger Penske, had planned for the weekend to be a celebration of America that honored the military and entertained fans.
Penske and NASCAR added another wrinkle when the Xfinity Series race was moved to the IMS road course, and this weekend was going to be an impressive display of a massive makeover Penske has given the speedway.
The pandemic upended everything. IndyCar's schedule was decimated and Penske moved that series to Saturday on the IMS road course. The important doubleheader has raised the anticipation for this holiday weekend of racing even though spectators aren't permitted and the two series can't mingle.
Penske takes solace in that both IndyCar and NASCAR will be telecast by NBC, which this week takes over its portion of the NASCAR television schedule.
“With both races on network, we do hope fans will tune in and get to see really great racing," Penske said.
The Cup cars have struggled to make competitive racing the last several years at Indy — Penske said the series could be moved to the road course in the future — and Sunday's one-day show of no practice or qualifying will benefit the elite teams and veteran drivers. That for sure means Harvick and Hamlin should be in the mix.
Harvick led 118 of 160 laps in last year’s race, winning by more than six seconds. A year earlier, Hamlin was lead until a caution with six laps remaining erased his cushion and allowed Brad Keselowski to pass him for the win.
Hamlin is 0-for-14 at the Brickyard but has seven finishes of sixth or better. He feels good about his chances Sunday.
“I would say specifically the last 10 to 11 (races) we’ve been exceptional, really since coming back from the break that we had,” Hamlin said. “My team is really strong."
And then there is Keselowski, the first Team Penske driver to give the boss a Cup Series win at his favorite race track. Penske has 18 victories in the Indianapolis 500.
Keselowski has won two Cup races and scored eight top-10 finishes since racing returned in May and he is jockeying for a contract extension from Penske.
“My confidence level right now is very, very high that we can be a contender for the entire season and continue to build and get stronger,” he said. “We’re starting to show a lot of speed. I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential.”