One year later, NASCAR reflects on a COVID-changed sport

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Bubba Wallace, left, congratulates Kyle Larson after Larson won a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

AVONDALE, Ariz. – The big story at Phoenix Raceway one year ago was the remarkable recovery of veteran driver Ryan Newman, who strolled around the infield sipping a soft drink just weeks after a horrific crash in the Daytona 500 had everyone fearing the worst.

It was an entertaining race on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with Joey Logano holding off Kevin Harvick for his second win of the season. Kyle Larson finished fourth, continuing his rise with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Then came COVID-19, and everything in auto racing — and the world — changed.

“Gosh, it doesn’t feel like a year ago," driver Ryan Blaney said.

After 12 long months, it'll be a much quieter scene for this year's spring race in the desert, with a smaller crowd, masks, social distancing and everything else that's been deemed necessary for sports to continue during a pandemic. It's a compromise that's become somewhat normal, even if it's less than ideal.

“I miss a lot,” Logano said. “Obviously, the fans not being at the racetrack, the energy that they bring is second to none, so that quietness is awful. I like hearing the cheering, the booing and everything in between. I like that. I like having our sponsors at the racetrack and people walking through the garage thinking it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen when they see these cars up close.”

NASCAR's season was paused for two months after Logano's win at Phoenix. The sport was one of the first in the nation to return on May 17 in Darlington, South Carolina, during a one-day event in front of no fans.

The slow march to normalcy continues in Phoenix.