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Inflatable Pools and iRacing: How NASCAR’s Rookies Battled Through an Unprecedented Season

Feb. 16, 2020: a day that the six NASCAR Cup Series rookie drivers will never forget.

More than 100,000 fans gathered at the sold-out Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500. To this day, the rookies still remember the roar of the crowd when their names were called for the first time and President Donald Trump speaking at the track.

“For my first experience there, it was crazy enough—and then you had the president being there on top of that,” says Quin Houff, who placed 39th after not finishing that race. “It was just so surreal to be on the same track as him for your first Daytona 500. It was a very, very humbling experience to be a part of it and be one of those 40 people on the other side of the fence who gets to get behind the wheel of a race car.”

While the original race was rained out after 20 laps, it was rescheduled for Monday and still lived up to the “Great American Race” name. Only two of the six rookies finished that race—John Hunter Nemechek, son of Front Row Joe, was 11th, and Brennan Poole, an on-again, off-again driver, was 16th—after a massive wreck on lap 184 involving 21 of the 37 cars on the track.

With a unique debut under their belts, the six rookies started to get into the rhythm of practice, qualifying and racing each week. Cole Custer, a nine-time Xfinity race winner and two-time runner-up in the Xfinity Series championship, had the highest finish out of the group in the first four races, placing ninth at Phoenix in March.

“We were making strides, getting better, but it was definitely tough,” Custer says. “That was some of the toughest races I've ever been in and trying to figure everything out as fast as you can against guys who are extremely good at it. So it's just trying to learn and adapt to the cars as fast as you can, and it's not easy.”

Then, everything came to a screeching halt.

Custer hit a home run at Kentucky, becoming the first rookie to win in four years.

Custer hit a home run at Kentucky, becoming the first rookie to win in four years.

On March 16, NASCAR announced the suspension of the 2020 season until May in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but planned to reschedule missed events. The decision came after a series of calls between the sanctioning body and team owners, and it affected seven races.

The 40 drivers soon found themselves in an unexpected offseason with no access to their garages, face-to-face team meetings, or normal Sunday races. However, NASCAR and iRacing announced the next day the formation of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The exhibition esports series featured many of the sports most talented and popular drivers and kicked off with a virtual race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“A lot of us drivers play iRacing quite a bit just to stay sharp and stay in tune with the NASCAR world,” says rookie Christopher Bell, who won 16 Xfinity races in two seasons. “Seeing iRacing on TV was pretty crazy.”

The live virtual races showed unique behind the scenes moments like when Denny Hamlin’s daughter turned off his simulator midrace.

While some drivers like William Byron and Bell felt more at ease in the iRacing simulator, a few of the other rookies didn’t. Tyler Reddick, defending back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, spent a majority of his time growing up traveling and racing on dirt tracks so he would hop on only occasionally. One of the things the rookie leans on is being able to feel the car while driving, and in a simulator, it’s stationary.

“I'm having to purely rely on my visual cues, what the steering wheels were telling me, what I'm able to do with the throttle,” Reddick said. “So it really forced me into fully focusing on improving my hand-eye coordination and just relying on other things I've never had to do before.”

In hindsight, Reddick felt iRacing prepared him for Martinsville because he’s “not very good at short tracks because you’re not exposed to those high loads that you are at the mile and a halves.” He finished 16th at that in-person race.

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Houff, however, hadn’t played iRacing more than once or twice before the pandemic.

“I didn't really want to get out there and maybe not understand things because there's a fine line between reality and virtual,” says Houff, who spent the time off helping out at his family’s business as a mechanic. “iRacing is very good training for drivers. It’s the closest you can get away from the race car to being realistic, but then at the same time, in order to be good at iRacing, there's that line you cross over into virtual to be good at it. So I hadn't quite figured out all the nooks and crannies to that.”

If the rookies weren’t competing and practicing on iRacing or exercising to stay in shape, they were finally knocking some things off the household to-do list, spending time with their families and participating in TikToks and vlogs.

Poole fell down the rabbit hole known as TikTok and started creating his own during the pandemic. But it wasn’t the silly dances that gained him followers. It was an above-ground pool.

“If you want to laugh, I bought an above-ground pool that's like 10 feet,” Poole says. “It came with goggles and I swam in it for TikTok, and it got a couple thousand views. It's growing.”

From there, he started adding on-board footage and content about the races. The most watched video on his feed? More than 34,000 watched him spin at Talladega.

Poole also got into vlogging during quarantine. Not only does he film from the track, he and his girlfriend started their own version of Chopped where people mail secret ingredients for her to use to make an appetizer and dinner.

The drivers stayed home for 70 days before NASCAR resumed live races. However, it was different than expected. Not only did they have seven races in an 11-day stretch, but there was no practice or qualifying.

“I definitely feel like that no practice has helped us some through trying to figure out how to get better from a team perspective,” Nemechek says. “And I feel like it's put us a little bit closer in the ballpark compared to some other teams to be able to contend on a weekly basis. But then again, from a driver perspective and a rookie perspective, having practice to figure out what your car needs and trying to figure that out to build your notebook and build your experience, that's what the rookie year is really about.”

Since the restart in Darlington, the rookies have run consistently, even showing up on a a few leaderboards. Christopher Bell is No. 12 (7,151) and Nemechek is No. 14 (7,133) in total laps run, while Reddick leads in green flag passes (3,004).

As far as Victory Lane, Custer became the first rookie ever to win at Kentucky Speedway, the first to win in the Cup Series in nearly four years and the third rookie to win a NASCAR Cup Series race since 2009 alongside Joey Logano and Chris Buescher. Custer’s four-wide pass for the lead at the Quaker State 400 on July 12 marked his first win in just his 20th start.

“Once I got up there, I knew I had to do something,” Custer says. “Because if you don't make those moves, sometimes [they're] making them on us. … You don't have to second-guess yourself as much going to the racetrack [after getting a win], but at the same time, there's so much for me to learn and I can't just get complacent now.”

With the playoffs under way—Custer was the lone rookie to make the field—the highly anticipated Class of 2020 has made its mark on a season that will go down in history. Each holds pieces of advice close to them to stay motivated and share with the next generation of drivers who are stuck at home, unable to practice or compete because of the pandemic.

“The harder you work, the more rewarding it gets,” Nemechek says. “And when that hard work pays off, it's even more special than not working hard because you know that you've put the effort in, you know that you've been training for this moment for forever, and you want to continue to strive to be better.

“But I would say never give up. Always push forward and always work hard. Always keep your head down and do whatever it takes. If you do whatever it takes you, you kind of create your own luck. And as long as you never give up, you're gonna continue to push for what you want and what you believe in.”