When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, the entire world shut down, professional sports included. The NBA was first, canceling a game shortly before it got started. A few days later Nascar wrestled with the decision to shutter, making the call to cease all racing on the Friday prior to the Atlanta race the fifth event on its 2020 schedule.

Nascar would develop a plan to return to the track and did so in May, becoming the first professional sport in America to put its product back in front of fans; but only those fans who could watch on TV.

The sanctioning body developed a “bubble” that limited access to the garage, pits and racetrack. Only a limited number of crewmembers, and the drivers, were allowed in. Nascar would complete its season with the same number of races that had been scheduled prior to the pandemic. The NBA wouldn’t return until the end of July, with an even more restrictive bubble than Nascar had developed. But it too finished its season, though an abbreviated one.

With vaccines rolling out, the 2021 Nascar season began with a slightly less restrictive bubble than 2020 ended with. There was an extra crewmember allowed, and team owners as well. Even the limited numbers of fans in the stands seen at some races last year are increasing.

The 2020 season was a struggle for team owners, especially when it came to working with sponsors. Sponsors write the checks that keep the racecar wheels turning. One of the big perks that come with that sponsorship is the ability to be at a race, whether for the sponsors themselves, or for entertaining their clients. Last season, with in-person attendance for sponsors impossible, team owners were forced to adapt. Most had exclusive online driver meet and greets, but beyond that there wasn’t much they could do.

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That is now changing.

Nascar will open its bubble a little more. Team owners have been told that a limited number of guests and sponsors will be allowed in starting with next month’s race at Darlington.

“We got so many guys that love racing, key people that support our race team,” team owner Joe Gibbs said this week.” I’m sure other race teams are the same way. We need, as quick as we can, to get those people in, inside, back where they can get and enjoy racing again.”

With more and more shots getting in arms, more people are now vaccinated. Gibbs says his organizations key sponsors, CEOs, and upper management of sponsors have been vaccinated and that could be why Nascar is willing to allow more people in.

“It’s a huge deal for us,” Gibbs said. “We need to get our partners back with us. So I’m sure hoping, I know Nascar has talked about it, I know they’re doing everything they can, but that would be a huge deal for us.”

That huge deal will be the ability to connect with sponsors in person once again. Gibbs points out that Nascar racing is much more than just the cars racing and not being able to experience everything at the track such as hospitality, and driver interactions impairs a team’s ability to attract potential new sponsors.

“When you’re missing all that, it’s really hard,” Gibbs said. “I appreciate our sponsors. I know that other owners do. Everybody that has worked so hard with us. I’m hoping we reach the time now where we can start getting a lot of the key players for us, from the sponsor standpoint, back at the racetrack.”

Drivers are on-board with the change as well. Rookie Chase Briscoe moved up to the Cup series this year with Stewert-Haas Racing. He raced in the Xfinity series last season signing a new sponsor at the start of 2020 that committed to moving with him to the Cup series this season. That sponsor, High Point, is new to the sport, but had the opportunity to attend only one race, that coming at the start of 2020.

“That’s something they’ve been needing to be able to do — to go and talk to other companies from a B-to-B standpoint and meet these other people and CEOs and things like that,” Briscoe said. “And they haven’t had that opportunity because of COVID. To keep them around we need those B-to-B opportunities for High Point, so I’m glad that they’re going to be able to go now starting at Darlington.”

With Nascar now allowing more people at the track teams ability to attract and keep sponsors will be easier, and that’s vital to the future health of Nascar.

“Over here you can’t race these cars if you don’t have a partner, a sponsor partner,” Gibbs said. “That’s not the case in other sports, but it is here.”