NASCAR drivers welcomed return of 'cheering' fans at Talladega

Jim Utter

Monday’s rain-delayed GEICO 500 was the second race since NASCAR returned to action during the COVID-19 pandemic on May 17 to host fans.

Around 1,000 guests – members of the military and their families – were allowed to attend the June 14 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Up to 5,000 fans were allowed at Talladega and a significant number still showed up when Sunday’s race was postponed by rain until Monday afternoon.

While dwarfed by Talladega’s large grandstands, Monday’s crowd still made themselves heard during pre-race ceremonies, when driver Bubba Wallace briefly took the lead in the race and when race winner Ryan Blaney enjoyed his post-race celebration.

“Yeah, it was definitely nice we had people in the stands, they stuck around after it rained. We got really lucky the weather cleared up to run the whole race,” Blaney said. “They are excited.

“Man, it was so great just to have fans back. The atmosphere of them cheering was back. Before and after the race, we love that stuff. Drivers, we love support. We love putting on good shows.

“Just to see even though it was 5,000 people, it was really cool to just get that cheering again, see everyone having a good time, that they enjoyed the race.”

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With fans in attendance, Blaney was able to continue one of his postrace traditions, which is to collect the checkered flag and hang it over to a young child.

“I was lucky the little boy and his father were really close,” he said. “Figured what a better welcome back present for fans to come to NASCAR races than do that for that kid.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished runner-up to Blaney in the race, said the fans’ presence was especially noticeable pre-race when drivers, crews and NASCAR officials as a group pushes Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet to the front of the starting grid and stood with Wallace during the national anthem as a sign of solidarity.

On Sunday afternoon, a noose was discovered in the garage stall of Wallace’s team. NASCAR and the Birmingham (Ala.) office of the FBI have opened an investigation into the matter.

“It was nice to hear them before the race. It wasn’t dead quiet like (it has been),” Stenhouse said. “Chanting 'Bubba' at the start, pretty special to be able to hear that. I think those fans were glad to be here.

“When Bubba took the lead, when he got to the lead, came down the front straightaway, we were only two-wide at that point. I looked at the stands, watched all the people jump up and cheer. That was pretty cool.

“Those are things that we haven’t had in a long time.”

The next race on the NASCAR schedule where fans will be allowed to attend is the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, where attendance will be capped at 30,000.

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