NASCAR drivers cautious of COVID-19 as playoffs begin

FILE - Crew members are visible under a COVID-19 alert sign as they push the car of Christopher Bell through the garage area before a scheduled NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Long Pond, Pa. NASCAR will not grant COVID-19 relief during the playoffs which means a positive coronavirus test will end a drivers' championship bid. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)
FILE - Crew members are visible under a COVID-19 alert sign as they push the car of Christopher Bell through the garage area before a scheduled NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Long Pond, Pa. NASCAR will not grant COVID-19 relief during the playoffs which means a positive coronavirus test will end a drivers' championship bid. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – NASCAR has decided it will not grant COVID-19 relief during the playoffs, meaning a positive coronavirus test will end a driver's championship bid.

The playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina without a safety net for the 16 participants during the pandemic. It's up to each driver to protect themselves from COVID-19, understanding there is no cushion for missing a race.

“I’m probably not going to go to college and hit up a keg stand,” Clint Bowyer said. “If you have COVID, you can’t race. It’s not a judgment call.”

NASCAR at its discretion grants waivers during its regular season for illness, emergency or personal reasons. The waiver maintains playoff eligibility, if the driver qualifies, but no points are awarded while sidelined.

Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon both missed one race during the season following a positive COVID-19 test and earned zero points. Dillon won a race — worth an automatic berth in the playoffs — but the seven-time champion Johnson went winless and missed the cut by six points.

NASCAR made no changes for the 10-race playoff series, so missing a race would would effectively end a driver's championship chances.

“If a driver tests positive, that driver needs to have two negative tests in a 24-hour period, or a 10-day period. We are not going to change those rules,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps.

As one of the first major sports to resume competition during the pandemic, NASCAR put in place guidelines designed to limit both exposure to the virus and its spread. Infield access has been closed to all but essential personnel and events have been held with both limited spectators and empty grandstands.