Out of the bubble, back on the grind

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This February was different for me.

At this time of the year, I’m usually contemplating over who wins the Daytona 500, which F1 teams get their ducks in a row during testing, and what benefits IndyCar sees exactly in having a five or six-month off-season (that one is a toughie).

But this February, I was more concerned with Adelina Sotnikova shocking the figure skating world, good guy David Wise making Olympic history in ski halfpipe, and the trials and tribulations of furry mascots.

I immersed myself inside the bubble that was the XXII Olympic Winter Games, with only a few reminders of my usual duties: Namely, my colleague Tony DiZinno fulfilling my requests for updates on any racing bits I’d missed, and NBC IndyCar/F1 voice Leigh Diffey calling all the sliding sports at Sochi.

But the bubble’s been popped. The Olympics are over. And now, I’m back on the grind here at MST.

So it goes for yours truly…And so it goes for NASCAR as well.

Their bubble, of course, was Daytona Speedweeks and its climax was the Daytona 500. It may not have had massive production numbers or crying bears, but it still produced a memorable result (not to mention one of the oddest social media episodes in NASCAR history).

In the end, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went one step beyond his late, beloved father by claiming a second Daytona 500 – thrilling everyone from Junior Nation to the executives in Daytona Beach.

The win comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which has had to deal with attendance and ratings woes in recent years and, quite frankly, needs its biggest star to morph into a regular winner ahead of the new (and improved?) Chase for the Sprint Cup it concocted over the off-season.

But NASCAR’s biggest show of the year is over. And now, it’s time to see how Earnhardt fares on the grind that begins this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

One figures that with Earnhardt effectively in the new Chase thanks to the win, we’ll see a less burdened competitor that’s more willing to take a chance or two. That could lead to more success at Phoenix, a track that may not pop into your mind as one of “his places” but a track where he rattled off a fifth and a fourth in 2013.

Besides Earnhardt, you figure competitors such as Kevin Harvick (a winner at PIR in two of the last three races there), Carl Edwards (the PIR spring race winner from one year ago), and Jimmie Johnson (six Top-5s in his last eight races there) will have their say in the outcome.

But a shake-up could be in the cards in Phoenix as well with the introduction of NASCAR’s new knockout-style qualifying format. Since Phoenix is a one-mile track, competitors will have a two-round format this weekend: The Top 12 fastest speeds advance from the 30-minute opening round to battle for the pole position in the second round.

In summary, Phoenix is where we’ll start to see the true contenders emerge. The bubble of Daytona is gone.

Now, it gets real.

IndyCar teams with NASCAR on IMS road course doubleheader in 2021

IndyCar NASCAR doubleheader 2021
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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The NTT IndyCar Series will be sharing Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the NASCAR Cup Series in a race weekend doubleheader for the second consecutive season, but both series will be on the road course in August 2021.

IMS announced Wednesday that IndyCar will hold an Aug. 14, 2021 race on its 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. It’ll be a day before NASCAR’s premier series runs the same layout for the first time after the Brickyard 400 was contested on the 2.5-mile oval for the first time in 27 years.

This season’s rescheduling of the IndyCar GMR Grand Prix to July 4, 2019 (a day before the Brickyard 400) led to the first NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader weekend. The Xfinity Series also raced on the IMS road course for the first time July 4 after the IndyCar race ended.

INDYCAR AT IMS THIS WEEKEND: Harvest GP schedule, entry lists

IndyCar will be holding its second race weekend this year at the IMS road course Friday and Saturday with the Harvest GP.

“Our first NASCAR-INDYCAR weekend was a big success last July, with positive feedback from
our loyal fans who watched the races on NBC and from the drivers, teams and participants
involved,” IMS president Douglas Boles said in a statement. “The Xfinity Series’ debut on the IMS road course provided exactly the kind of thrilling action from the green to checkered flags that we anticipated, so we know the teams and drivers of the Cup Series will put on a great show as they turn left and right for the first time at IMS.

“We can’t wait to welcome back fans to see NASCAR and INDYCAR together during this
exciting weekend as we add another memorable chapter in the long, storied history of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

It also will mark the first NASCAR Cup-IndyCar doubleheader with a crowd as fans weren’t permitted at IMS in July because of the novel coronvavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Over the course of Wednesday, NASCAR is releasing its 36-race slate for next season. IndyCar has yet to release its full 2021 schedule.