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Did You Notice?: NASCAR Diversity Takes Giant Leap Forward During COVID-19 Pandemic

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Did You Notice? … How far NASCAR diversity has come in just a few short months?

Flash back to April 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, and the viability of single-car teams (think: Richard Petty Motorsports / Bubba Wallace and Gaunt Brothers Racing / Daniel Suarez) was in doubt. Kyle Larson had just been fired from Chip Ganassi Racing for his public use of a racial slur. The sport felt more connected to its uglier moments from the 1950s and 1960s than a more progressive stance on diversity in 2020.

Fast forward almost seven months. Larson has been reinstated by NASCAR and has dedicated his future to enriching diversity programs. Wallace has jumped to a new team with arguably the most famous African American owner in NASCAR history: Michael Jordan. Armed with sponsorship from DoorDash and the Cash App, he’ll pair with Jordan’s influence to have a well-funded car capable of winning.

Suarez is with a new team of his own next year, Trackhouse Racing, whose owner Justin Marks has off-track plans of his own. The team’s focus on STEM education will take them specifically to minority and urban communities to teach them more about the sport.

Then, there’s Hailie Deegan, the most-hyped female prospect since Danica Patrick. Deegan announced she’ll run the 2021 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series full-time with DGR-Crosley, putting her in the best equipment of any woman running next season. But she likely won’t be alone: Jennifer Jo Cobb, Natalie Decker and Angela Ruch will all likely be running at least part-time.

Meanwhile, off the track, the sport made a bold move to ban Confederate flags in June. Wallace then joined Jimmie Johnson and a long list of NASCAR stars in pushing the sport’s “listen and learn” video after the death of George Floyd.

I will listen and learn pic.twitter.com/XWgautn4cy

— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) June 7, 2020

Two weeks later, the report of a noose above Wallace’s pit stall at Talladega Superspeedway brought the garage together. Their unified support of their driver in peril was the type of moment that made everyone proud to be part of the sport.

No words pic.twitter.com/ZorYccEjFo

— Steve O’Donnell (@odsteve) June 22, 2020

Together pic.twitter.com/D4zW3jA5y5

— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) June 22, 2020

Of course, the noose turned out to be a false alarm, paired with some criticism of how the situation was handled. But the overall body of work has put NASCAR more in line with the type of progressivism we’ve seen from the NBA than an organization that once supported segregationist George Wallace.

I mention this point because progress is about to turn into pressure. Expectations for the Wallace-Jordan outfit will be absurdly high with Wallace in his fourth season driving in the NASCAR Cup Series. Tiger Woods grew golf not just because of his presence; it was ultimately through his success. Would the sport have gained a larger audience if he finished 50th at the Masters every year?

All eyes will be on Larson if, as rumored, he winds up in a Hendrick Motorsports ride with top-tier support. Each time he speaks, people will hang onto every word. It takes time for a second chance to supplant a sour taste about the previous mistake. Just ask Kurt Busch, whose post-2011 rehabilitation among both peers and the fan base took several years.

And Deegan will be out to forge new records for women after Patrick’s disappointing tenure in NASCAR: 252 career starts, just one top-five finish (and that came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series). There are some who still believe, unfairly, women cannot succeed in this sport. The only way they get proven wrong is when she takes a trip to victory lane.

As Matt McLaughlin says in his letter to Michael Jordan today, putting your name on a team is the easy part. Actually achieving success is what will truly transform a few simple actions into a long-term movement toward progress. The best way to get more minorities and women involved in the sport? Seeing them contend up front, lead laps and win races.

NASCAR has come such a long way in a really short time. We’ll see if those next steps can happen in 2021.

Did You Notice? … Two full-time Cup Series drivers remain without a top-10 finish this season? Suarez is finishing up a miserable season with GBR where he’s earned just eight lead-lap finishes. A DNQ in February’s Daytona 500 got the partnership off on the wrong foot, and the team never recovered. Suarez doesn’t even have a top-15 finish as other drivers, like D.J. Kennington and Parker Kligerman, have fared better with the No. 96.

The other driver on this list is rookie Quin Houff with StarCom Racing. Remember the Houff – Matt DiBenedetto brouhaha the last time NASCAR visited Texas Motor Speedway in July? Where Houff inexplicably turned down to pit in front of the No. 21 car, triggering a three-car wreck?

Nothing has gotten better for Houff since then. His average finish of 31.0 is significantly lower than Landon Cassill’s 29.3 from a year ago. (Remember when the team said they’d “make good” on Cassill’s commitment to them? We haven’t seen him in a Cup ride since.)

But I digress.

Houff does have a 13th-place finish from last month at Talladega, his only top-20 finish of the season. Can you believe that’s better than any run Suarez has had in 2020? That’s how far this former Joe Gibbs Racing driver has fallen. There’s a lot of repair work and pressure ahead for him next season (see above). Can his fourth team in four years finally be the fit Suarez needs?

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

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