For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the sports world three months ago, professional sports returns to South Florida this weekend – but it’s not the Miami Heat or Florida Panthers who will be back in action.
NASCAR makes its return to the area Saturday and Sunday with four races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capping off the weekend with the Cup Series’ Dixie Vodka 400 on Sunday.
“I’m excited to give it a shot. It’s a unique track because it’s so slick and worn out, you can run all the lanes there,” said Matt DiBenedetto, who will be driving the No. 21 Wood Brothers Race Ford on Sunday.
It’s the first time the annual weekend will not be NASCAR’s final races of the season, something the sport had done since the 2002 season. Starting in the 2004 season, it was the final race of NASCAR’s annual playoff series, with Kyle Busch winning his second title in the last five seasons with a win last November.
Originally, the races were scheduled for March 19th-21st, but were postponed by NASCAR as the pandemic struck America.
“It’s a tough track and you really have to hit your set-ups perfect,” DiBenedetto said. “Just having that hot, humid weather affects the driving a lot more than people think. It’ll feel like a completely different track when it’s that hot and that slick.”
Homestead will be the first race since NASCAR resumed last month to have fans in the stands, with 1,000 members of the military along with family members scheduled to be in attendance.
“It’s been weird for a lot of people. It’s been odd because we just finished our real offseason and started back racing. Then, we have almost another full offseason and I was going pretty stir crazy like a lot of people,” said DiBenedetto, who finished a career best 20th place at Homestead last November.
Since returning to racing on May 17th, NASCAR has condensed races into a shortened period to make up for postponed events – including the top series holding seven races over a 24 day span, including racing on Wednesday at Martinsville Raceway in Virginia.
“I think it’s been fun racing a couple times each week,” DiBenedetto said. “With all these races and playing catch-up, it makes me feel like an old school dirt racer.”
NASCAR came into the news spotlight when it announced a confederate flag ban on Wednesday, two days after the series’ only African-American driver - Bubba Wallace - said it should not be allowed.
“I’ve seen too many comments and too many stories from first-time fans that come to a race in years past and the first thing they say is, ‘I’ve seen the Confederate flag flying and it made me feel uncomfortable.’ We shouldn’t have anybody feeling uncomfortable,” Wallace told NBC’s TODAY show on Thursday, one day after racing in a car adorned with the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter.
Homestead-Miami Speedway will feature one more race than normal as it picked up one race on the Xfinity Series circuit that was moved from Iowa.