A Sort of Homecoming

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Michigan International Speedway is my home track. I went there a lot when I was growing up, but I never went as a fan. I went as the son of a driver. My father raced in the ARCA stock car series when I was a kid. (He won the series championship in 1989.) Racing is in my family’s blood — it goes all the way back to when my dad’s dad was racing motorcycles and snowmobiles in the ’40s and ’50s.

I grew up in a suburb of Detroit called Rochester Hills. That was where my dad had his race shop. Rochester Hills is about 30 minutes north of downtown Detroit, and not quite two hours northeast of MIS. Michigan was the only racetrack we went to that was within a short day’s drive of our house — we could go there in the morning and sleep in our own beds at night.

So my memories of Michigan are mostly about the drives, leaving for the racetrack really early in the morning — usually around four or five — stopping at McDonald’s or Burger King to get a sandwich, and then going back to sleep. Usually it was just me and my older brother, Brian, in the car with my parents.

I’ve been at races at Michigan when there have been a lot of fans, and when there have been just a few. But I’ve never been to Michigan when there have been no fans, which is how it will be this weekend, when we’ll run Cup races there on Saturday and Sunday.

Racing without fans is way different. In some ways it’s a blessing. I think we all recognize that there’s a lot going on out there in the world today. And we feel fortunate to get to race, period, because we sat for a few months doing nothing — which, to be honest, was not a lot of fun.

Courtesy of Brad Keselowski

Beyond the fans not being around, I’m not even allowed to be physically around my team at the track. Not back at the hauler, not anywhere. It’s all completely off-limits. I do a lot of Zoom calls from the kitchen table in my motor home — probably four or five a week with my team. So, for example, what would normally be a prerace briefing in person is a prerace briefing over Zoom. And then I also do them with sponsors — usually we get to spend time with our sponsors, and now we can’t. So we do Zoom calls for that, too.

And having won three races since we’ve come back, I can tell you that it’s a little bit … I don’t want to say disheartening, but it’s different to not be able to win and celebrate it with your fans and your team and everybody in your family. Usually, I would have my family at the racetrack — at Michigan I’d have a lot of my family at the racetrack. But they haven’t been allowed in Victory Lane after any of our wins this season, and neither has my team. That kind of hurts, because those moments don’t come around very often. I might win more races, but I also might never win the Coke 600 again. I might never win another race at Bristol. I don’t know.

And if I win a race this weekend, “kind of hurts” won’t even begin to describe how it will feel.

To not get to enjoy that stuff with the people who mean the most to you, it’s a little bit heartbreaking. It’s a party by yourself, which is no fun.

But while 2020 hasn’t always been easy for anyone, it also hasn’t been all bad. There’s a flip side to the isolation.

NASCAR has done an exceptional job of being the sport that’s been able to come back and do it safely. You read about guys testing positive for COVID in baseball, basketball, college football, soccer, and on and on. I mean, we still don’t even know if there’s actually going to be a football season. But NASCAR has been running since the middle of May almost without incident.

That is a fact. And it is remarkable.

Over the years, I’ve done everything but win at Michigan. I’ve got 33 Cup victories in my career — including one last Sunday at New Hampshire — but I haven’t won at MIS in 21 starts. I want to change that.

In previous races at Michigan, where we had the speed to win, we either had terrible luck or made mistakes. And in races where we did everything perfectly, we just weren’t fast enough. The result is a lot of top fives and a lot of top 10s — a lot of almosts.

With two races this weekend, I have two chances to break out of the almost category. I want to do that so bad.

Two races in two days might seem like a lot — and in the Cup Series, where you usually race just once a week, it normally would be — but this isn’t a normal year. The pandemic forced NASCAR to shut down for more than two months in the spring, and since then we’ve been running more than a race a week. I mean, we ran three races the first seven days we were back. 

And I’ve got to be honest, I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

It’s been great. When you have so many races so close together, you don’t have to do any practice or qualifying. Normally I would be at the racetrack more days a week than I am now. So I’m at the track less, but I’m racing more. That seems like a heck of a deal to me — the racing part is the fun part.

But I also feel a little guilty about it. I know the only reason we’re doing things this way is because of the pandemic, which is such a serious thing — so many people have lost jobs or gotten sick or lost loved ones. We need to stick together and get through this. And I know we will, eventually.

And when we do — after the pandemic is over — I hope we keep running a schedule like this. I really do. It’s all about racing.

And I love that.

You have to look at everything this season through the lens of the pandemic — the compressed schedule, the safety protocols, the empty stands, everything. COVID-19 has affected the sport in ways that are obvious and in ways that are subtle.

Like contract negotiations.

On Monday, I signed an extension to keep racing for Team Penske. I’ve been racing here since 2010, and I feel like I’m staying right where I want to be. I entered this season in the last year of my previous contract, so things had been hanging over me for a while. I had hoped that it would have gotten cleared up before anything happened, before I ever ran a race in 2020 … but it didn’t. And NASCAR shutting down for 10 weeks only prolonged everything — only added another layer to the stress of the season.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The pandemic has led to sponsors being very careful about how they spend their money. And if there’s a driver willing to pay for a seat in a car, that’s something that teams take very seriously. That really does a lot of damage to the contract market. If someone is willing to pay to take your ride, the marketplace changes pretty dramatically.

So it’s a relief to be staying at a place where I’ve had so much success. I’ve done so many things at Penske: winning at the Brickyard, winning the Coca-Cola 600, and winning championships. When I won the Cup in 2012, that was Roger’s first. It was pretty special, for him and for me. And I’m not done here. Now I want to win the Daytona 500 — and another championship.

I think my team is a serious threat to win it all this year. We’re on a roll — we’re in second in the standings, and we’ve only finished outside of the top 10 once in the last seven races, and that was an 11th. 

We had a new team at the start of the year, but it’s really jelling. I think the layoff helped because it gave us a chance to reflect and prepare. But I believe we were coming together as a team anyway, and we’ve just kept gaining strength. They’re really feeling the confidence right now.

In my mind, there are a couple of other favorites at this point. Kevin Harvick’s very strong, very consistent — he’s leading the standings. You can never count out any of the Gibbs cars. The Hendrick cars are always good, too.

The only thing I’m really certain of is that I’m glad to still be racing, to still be doing what I love to do.

And I’m glad to be doing it at home.

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