During these unprecedented times. It’s almost achieved trope status this year, the phrase seemingly preceding every TV commercial or news declaration. There’s some truth to every cliche. And 2020 hit all those notes — remarkable, extraordinary … unprecedented.
NASCAR was little different in checking that buzzword’s box: A captivating Daytona 500 before the onset of a global pandemic, a majority of events held without practice or qualifying under public health protocols, an industry-wide reckoning on race and diversity, a national schedule uprooted and redone on the fly for a season that, stunningly, finished on time.
Through all of it, a handful of lasting images stood out, helping to tell the story of this strikingly eventful racing season. The “picture worth a thousand words” cliche rings true, too, but sometimes the image alone doesn’t illustrate the full context of how it came to be.
NASCAR.com spoke to the creators of these enduring photos to close out the year, asking them to walk us through the time period leading up to these snapshots, how they captured the moments and why those powerful images matter. It’s an interesting mix — a driver, a team executive, two professional photographers and a social media coordinator — but despite their different roles within the racing industry, their images helped to stir emotions and inspire.
Here are the stories behind those images in the words of those who made them.
An intentional walk
The caption: On Feb. 19, 2020, two days after a severe crash in the season-opening Daytona 500, Roush Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman walks with daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn after being discharged from Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.
The credit: Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing
In his words: Obviously it had been a pretty chaotic and tumultuous few days and pretty devastating for the entire Roush Fenway family and for Ryan and his immediate family, with the uncertainty of just not knowing his condition. I think that we were pretty heartened by how he seemed to recover and that all of the medical reports were extremely positive. It was pretty clear that Ryan had avoided worst-case scenarios and lots of other potential results that probably went through the mind of his family and everybody else, what the repercussions and consequences would be. Clearly during his hospital stay, he improved rapidly and really regained his almost normal sense.
I had committed to stay with Ryan and his family until he left, which is why I took the picture because I was the only one down there at that point. Obviously, photography is not what I’m paid for, nor is it in my wheelhouse, but we did understand that it was a likelihood that he was going to be released just because of the progress that he had made. Sitting and talking to him in his hospital room, I mean he definitely seemed to be the same old Ryan with his sense of humor, his sarcasm and just a smile on his face the whole time. So I think there was a lot of excitement that he was going to be able to be released and had gotten sign-offs from all the various doctors that attended to him.
I think quite frankly for me personally, it was just a sense of relief because you always scroll through all the worst-case scenarios in your head, and to go from where we were on Monday to that point was monumental. So I really do think it was just a sense of relief from everybody involved.
A little background on the story: When we were leaving, Ryan was intent on walking out of there. However, hospital protocol in this instance says that you have to be let out in wheelchair. So he was put in a wheelchair and we went through some back channels just to give him a little bit of privacy as he was leaving. So we got to the exit where he was going to leave and he was intent. ‘I feel good. I want to make sure that I do this in the right way,’ so he wanted to walk out of there.
There’s no doubt that it was very apparent through this whole process that the most important things in the world to Ryan are his girls. And so it just seemed appropriate for them to go hand in hand when he left the hospital.
Now in retrospect, and I got some grief from the more professional marketing and communications folks here, I probably should’ve had Ryan put some shoes on because as you’ll see in the picture, he does not have any shoes on. He still has his hospital socks on because he was in the wheelchair as he was departing, but that’s probably beyond my wheelhouse to recognize that detail at that particular moment. But I did get a lot of comments about, ‘you could’ve at least given him some shoes when he was leaving.’
I think the main driving factor is that it was an unbelievably emotional moment, and because of the outpouring of support from friends, family, everyone in the industry, people outside the industry, it just felt like it would be the right thing to do to capture the essence of the moment and have something to show the world that Ryan was doing well and was walking out of the hospital. So that was really the impetus to capture that moment as much for Ryan and his girls to look back on at some point, but as much for everyone else who had shown genuine concern and compassion for Ryan.
I think, for me, it carries a lot of symbolism with Ryan being able to walk out of there showing his toughness. If you dig deeper, it shows the unbelievable safety that has been built in by NASCAR into our cars, it symbolizes the care that he got from all the medical doctors and medical professionals at Halifax that enables them to be able to do that, from the safety team at the track that extracted him from the car so quickly. I think it’s just a culmination of factors. And then the key for me and the part that was probably more emotional for anything is that he was holding hands with his daughters going out.
The caption: Chase Briscoe kneels beside his No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford after topping Kyle Busch in a late-race battle to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Toyota 200 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on May 21, 2020. One day earlier, Briscoe and his wife, Marissa, had shared that she had suffered a miscarriage.
The credit: Jared C. Tilton, staff photographer, Getty Images
In his words: We’d had two Cup races before this day, and if I remember correctly, even had a little rain in between and wasn’t really sure how this day was going to pan out itself. I spent most of the day just walking around outside of the race track and in the stands, just grabbing features, like closed ticket boxes and empty seats and locks on doors, just showing the idea behind the story that no fans are allowed and we’re back racing again. That’s kind of how I spent my morning. Then all of a sudden, the track dries and it’s time to go racing.
Part of our mission at Getty, which speaks highly on this image for me, is for imagery to have the power to move and to move the world, and I kind of think this image does that. Whether you’re aware of the situation or not, this powerful moment in time, it grabs you emotionally and that makes you want to ask more questions.
Getting onto the importance of the photo, I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d just started back, I remember I hadn’t worked for two months prior to that week, so just being there myself was pretty emotional in the first place, just being back at work and getting things going again. It’s funny to see that the NASCAR Cup Series had its spotlight two days before and then the Xfinity Series was getting its spotlight being one of the only sports running that day. But the actual spotlight probably started the day before on that Wednesday when it was announced that Chase and Marissa had unfortunately suffered a miscarriage. So leading into the race, between my emotions and those emotions, there was a lot going on, in just the world in general.
So it was just kind of weighing heavily on everyone’s minds during the race. They were talking about it a lot over the radio, on the broadcast about Chase. I actually remember him having a quote afterward saying that when he took the lead on Lap 50, he just broke down emotionally in his car, so the emotions were high with everyone around there. And I just started thinking to myself, this kid’s got a chance to win and he’s battling Kyle Busch, the defending champion for the Cup Series, and he’s actually holding his own, doing really well out of each turn, he’s going to win this race.
So I remembered from the past that Chase is a guy of faith and God, and always likes to take a moment to himself after the race on his victories and pray by the car. Leading back to our mission at Getty, I kind of thought to myself that this is going to be that powerful moment, that this will be that time when it makes you ask the questions, and can really speak the thousand words without having any words in there, just having that photo.
So I started to plan for myself, being the only one on the outside of the race track, started trying to think where do I need to be, where can I get this image of Chase in this special moment, because so many things could’ve went sideways or gone a different way. If he’d parked on the frontstretch with his nose facing toward Turn 1, he’d have been on the other side of the car for me and I never would’ve seen him. If he would’ve stopped where his pit crew was in Turn 1, I could’ve been in the wrong position. But knowing that I was the only one there, I need to get as close to the action and close to that moment as possible, so I decided to go down to the start-finish line and just plant myself at the start-finish line and wait for the moment there.
As the race concluded and he won, at that point, it’s kind of out of my hands. I’m in my position. I need to do what I need to do. I’ve prepared as best as I can for this moment, now it’s just kind of up to Chase and where he parks the car — which is crazy. You know, it just kind of all worked out when he parked, is facing Turn 4 and his door was facing me on the frontstretch. I immediately thought to myself, all right, I’ve got this chance to make this great image now and was just going to see what he does.
Once he got out of the car, it was just actually documenting at that point. There was nothing different than any other day in my 15-year career with NASCAR, just documenting. No hard shadows, no creative light, no slow-motion pan with exuberant color coming through, it was just straight, raw emotion and just transparency from the driver. Catching at driver at this point where he is so victorious and a heroic athlete that everyone looks up to, but seeing him and capturing him at this vulnerable moment in his life and his career just really made the image powerful to me.
It definitely got me emotional and pulled on my heartstrings.
I knew what the moment meant and was following it on the radio the entire time, knew the stakes, knew what it was probably going to mean to him to beat one of the best in the business, especially the first race back. Marissa wasn’t able to be there with him, they’d just had this tragedy in life, I knew the importance of this moment. He was victorious, he was sitting there on the start-finish line, but he’s praying and having that moment of vulnerability. I thought to myself that it’s kind of odd. This is not a moment where it’s just me and him, but I feel like I’m with him in this moment. I’ve never experienced anything like that in life and I can’t imagine going through something like that, but it definitely got me emotional and pulled on my heartstrings knowing what I was photographing and that I was one of the only ones there with him besides the flagman. I thought about that a lot afterward.
I didn’t really know which image was going to be the powerful image. There were so many that I shot there in that 30 to 45 seconds, some very tight ones just showing him right beside the car with the door number and some wider ones showing the entire car with the start-finish line, there were some of him after he took his helmet off before he started doing the interview where it’s just tears and you can see the emotion on his face. I knew I had something in there. I didn’t know which one it was going to be, didn’t know which one would really take off, but I knew I had it. With the technology that we had at the race track, we had a receiver set up on the photographer’s stand on the inside of Turn 1, so in order for me to transmit my images, I had to run halfway down the frontstretch on the outside of the bleachers to get in line with this receiver that we had.
So I went running down and just started transmitting as fast as I could, because I knew that one of those images out of that set was going to be the image that told the story of that day — not necessarily him on track and beating Kyle Busch, that stuff kind of went second in my eyes, because this was the important moment that was going to tell the story that day and use the power of a picture to move you emotionally.
The caption: Bubba Wallace takes a selfie as fellow drivers and crew members assemble on pit road at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway before the GEICO 500 for the NASCAR Cup Series on June 22, 2020. Members of the NASCAR garage showed their support during the investigation of a noose found in his team’s garage stall, a probe that later determined that there was no targeted hate crime directed toward Wallace.
The credit: Bubba Wallace, then driver of Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet, now driver of the 23XI Racing No. 23 Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series.
In his words: So I woke up with everything that had gone on Sunday night, woke up to about 200 text messages and checked the group chat and had seen Jimmie Johnson say that he had planned on standing next to me for the national anthem and he was like, ‘I don’t know who else is going to be there, but that’s where I’m going to be.’ And so a lot of people were like, ‘I’m going to join,’ and I thought, man, that’s pretty cool. I lost it reading that.
As time went on a few minutes later, it was like, man, we’re going to need a lot more space on the grid, so then Harvick and Kyle Busch chimed in and were like, well, let’s see if we can get space on the grid or move my car out of the way. So I kind of knew what was going on and knew that drivers would be around.
So by the time we climbed in, that was a tough moment, just knowing that the support was there, for sure, and it was genuine and that people wanted to be there. What I didn’t know as I was getting pushed (on the grid), I didn’t know that the whole entire garage behind me. I just thought it was the drivers. And then talking to Jimmie, he was like, ‘yeah, man. I had team managers, team presidents reaching out and saying how can we be a part of this.’
So when I get out of the car, I see that all the drivers are around and then I’m like, man, I’m seeing a lot more faces and things in the background behind the drivers. Literally, it was like a blur. So I stand up on the car and am like, holy cow! That’s when I lost it, that’s when I broke down, when I saw the whole garage standing there in support. I thought that was pretty damn cool, so that inspired me to take the picture.
I wasn’t worried about the framing or the subject. I wanted to get as much as I could, as many drivers as I could in the picture. There were some that were cropped out that didn’t make the deal, but it would’ve been more like a PR stunt if I’d say, hey, scooch in and get everybody in there. This is more of just in the moment, just to capture it and at that time show whoever it was that hey, we’re all a family and nothing’s going to tear this family apart, no matter how deep the subject is or the pain is, we’re all standing together.
That’s what that photo there kind of resembles. Powerful photo. I’ve signed it many times from people that printed it out. I should’ve trademarked it. But yeah, it’s a powerful photo that I’m proud to say I took and that will always be in my phone.
I think that was probably the most powerful moment inside the sport was that day and everything that day provided, from the pre-race stuff to the dramatic finish there at the end. That was a big day for sports in general, just to see that. Having drivers there that you believe they truly care about you, we try to put up the hard rule where they’re competitors and we don’t get along, but when it comes down to things like that, we show each other that we care.
The caption: Smoke flies after Kevin Harvick (4) and Kyle Busch tangle leaving Turn 4 on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series’ Xfinity 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Nov. 1, 2020. Chase Elliott won the race, and the top-seeded Harvick fell short of a Championship 4 berth.
The credit: Jared C. Tilton, staff photographer, Getty Images
In his words: The day was actually a little different than my days normally at Martinsville. Normally there, we’ll have two or three photographers and as I’m sure you’re aware, there’s not a tremendous amount of places to shoot inside of Martinsville. With the pandemic going on and our access limited, I was only designated to shoot on the inside. Normally, I’d be running around outside on the backstretch, then shooting Turn 3, Turn 4, I’d be going in for pit stops and all this. So the actual day itself, it made me think outside the box more than I ever have because I’ve never been just assigned only the inside at Martinsville. So it was restrictive in a way, but it made me think outside the box.
So I was sort of all over the place, trying to shoot some details, trying to shoot as many pit stops as I could. But the moments when Chase started leading, like I said with the Briscoe photos, there’s always going to be some moments where you know you need to capture it, you know you need to be in a place to tell that story. With Chase leading the race, that started to be my story, that he has to win to get in. This is his only way to get into the championship.
So I got down to the start-finish line on the inside and was standing in a pit box with about 15, 20 laps to go, and listening to the radio. The broadcast was talking about how Harvick needed one more point, just one more pass to get in. So trying to think ahead, knowing that Chase was pulling ahead from Ryan Blaney, I’d sort of been looking where Harvick was each lap: how far was Harvick behind Chase, who was he around, what’s going to happen at the end of this race that’s going to pan out if Harvick goes on to the next round. Either way, I needed to make sure that when Chase crossed the finish line, tell that story, but then again, find Harvick as quickly as possible because if I don’t get any image of him whatsoever, I need to get him crossing the finish line showing that when he finished, he didn’t have the points and the position needed to move on.
As the laps wind down, I shoot Chase taking the checkered flag and as I had prepared to do, I turned to find Harvick and as soon as I turn and look, I hear the tires squealing, I see the big billow of smoke and all of a sudden, out come Kevin and Kyle. At the moment, I didn’t think to myself that it would be a very important image like it was. I knew I needed to tell the story of Kevin and not finishing the race where he needed to be, but I didn’t really realize the impact of the moment of Kyle being in that photo also. You know as well as I do, Kyle and Kevin — their names are synonymous with championships and playoffs, they’re always there. With the year Kyle had with not running as well as he had in the past, Kevin not having a very good third round in the playoffs, it was going to be a year where these two massive names in our sport weren’t going to be battling for the championship, and the fact that I was able to kind of get those two big names in one photograph as the end, kind of telling the story of both of their seasons, that made that important to me.
If you look at it, in my opinion it’s just a normal, typical wreck coming out of Turn 4 without the craziness of a Talladega wreck. It’s not the Big One, it’s just your everyday spin. So you sort of have to know the specifics of the photo to make it powerful. You have to know which two drivers are in there, why that’s important, where the race was, that it was in Martinsville as the last race before the year ends, you had to know what lap it was — all these things make this image important.
I truly believe that experience and relationships fueled both of these photos for me — experience in knowing what to expect, and then key relationships with NASCAR that have put us in these positions to tell the story of these drivers and to move the industry with our imagery. I think those two things — experience and relationships — played a huge part in both of those photos for me. Without either one of those, if this was my first year doing it, I’m not sure I would have been as prepared. If we didn’t have the relationship with NASCAR that we have, we wouldn’t have been in position to capture those moments. I think without those two things, none of these images would have ever happened.
‘Passing of the torch’
The caption: Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott exchange a high-five after Elliott clinched his first Cup Series title with a victory in the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8, 2020. The event was Johnson’s last race as a full-time NASCAR competitor.
The credit: Tyler Barrick, Tyler Barrick Photography, contributor for Team Chevy
In his words: The race was over and basically I was walking back to my vehicle along the rim road and was kind of positioned to take some photos of Chase’s burnout, just for the sake of having them and was kind of disappointed because he burned out near the start-finish line and he was nowhere near where I was (between Turns 3 and 4). I kind of started to walk away — I don’t want to say dejected or anything, but I was disappointed that I didn’t get an image of the burnout and this celebration with his team. I was walking, I happened to see Jimmie’s car coming toward me doing a Polish victory lap and waving to the fans, snapped a few pictures of that and then turned around to see Chase driving in the opposite direction and essentially watched Chase stop, Jimmie’s car continue on, and just happened to pull out my camera and literally clicked three frames of the moment, and that was that.
I had my camera set — sometimes photographers will put it on a high-speed motor drive to be able to capture a large number of photos at one time, like 18 frames a second or something like that. Mine was on single frame, so those three frames were three pushes of the button. And I’m not saying that as a pride thing that I captured the moment, that’s just a pity thing that I didn’t have it set on a higher frame rate. Sometimes, you only need one photo, right?
From years of working in the NASCAR industry, it’s just always being prepared to take a picture, even if you don’t know it’s going to be around you. As a photographer, I’m always in the mindset to have my camera ready and pre-set to the right settings, so if I have a moment happen in front of me, I’m ready to capture it. As I was walking back to the car, dejected at not getting the burnout pictures I was hoping for, I still had my camera set and turned on, just anticipating being able to see something. So it’s just always being ready — you never know when something’s going to happen in front of you. You don’t have time to change settings, to turn something on, you just always have to be ready to go when it presents itself.
There was no dictation (of post-race procedures) to me other than what was told to all the other photographers where Chase would be held on the backstretch, I guess, before he gets rolled into championship Victory Lane. So this was literally just happened to see it in front of me and pulled my camera up to take a couple of snaps as it went on. Chase just happened to stop on the track and Jimmie just kept right on driving, and had they been a foot off on either side, then I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. It would’ve been a non-picture.
But the interesting thing about this, too, is I didn’t even realize that I’d gotten the photograph until I got back to my hotel later that afternoon. I happened to be going through my take, and I ended up forwarding a copy to a friend that worked at Hendrick Motorsports, and they ending up distributing it to the team, to which it ended up getting back to Jimmie, but they ended up posting it on Instagram, which is how it kind of took off. So there was literally no intent for this photo to go anywhere other than to some friends in the engineering group, and then it kind of exploded after that.
I’ll be honest, it probably took me about a good two to three days once I got home to realize this was something of an iconic image. By Friday of that week after Phoenix, it was starting to settle in that this was quite possibly — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but it’s probably one of the more iconic images of the era that’s been taken. I’m literally just a button-pusher and I happened to be at the right spot at the right time, so this didn’t have anything to do with skill of making art. It was just literally capturing a moment, but I’d say by Friday after the race, it was starting to sink in that this was pretty important.
To be honest, I didn’t hear the ‘passing of the torch’ phrase until I don’t know, the day after, maybe. I’d turned off my radio walking back, so I wasn’t listening to MRN or TV or anything like that, I was kind of in my own element when the picture was made, and like I said, it was almost 24 hours after that I heard that phrase. So to me, it’s significant because it’s the beginning of a new era. You have arguably one of the greatest drivers of the modern era congratulating presumably one of the next generation of that, passing the torch. But it’s just an iconic handshake or finger slap that will hopefully show Chase’s success in the future.
It’s nice to be able to help drivers celebrate championships after they win, and I feel like this was a very poignant image just to celebrate the whole weekend and the day with Seven-Time retiring and Chase winning. Just the ushering in of a new era.
like father, like son
The caption: Chase Elliott embraces his father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, after securing his first NASCAR Cup Series championship with a victory in the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8, 2020.
The credit: Alejandro Alvarez, social media coordinator, NASCAR Digital Media
In his words: This all happened just after Chase Elliott had finished his initial championship celebrations at Phoenix Raceway. Elliott was mid-interview with a radio partner when his dad, Bill Elliott, who had been lurking just off-camera, finally decided he couldn’t wait any longer and approached his son. The two embraced and the few media members approved to be inside the track bubble swarmed the scene.
Had this happened even a few seconds earlier, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the moment and would’ve missed it entirely. Typically, championship races are staffed heavily by our team, but this year I was the only representative from NASCAR Digital Media fortunate enough to be on the ground in Phoenix. As always, championship day calls for an early arrival to the track. Pre-race ceremonies came and went, and the race rolled on. I was shooting video on one hand and photo with the other throughout the afternoon due to the staffing limitations. Once the checkered flag flew, those of us inside the track lined the wall and waited for the championship car to come by and the celebrations to start. With three other drivers vying for a title, I couldn’t focus solely on Chase Elliott.
Because of this, I was quite literally running around the track during the post-race celebrations trying to capture the scene at the No. 9 car while also photographing and filming the rest of the Championship 4. Adding another wrench into the afternoon was Jimmie Johnson’s final race. Capturing his final climbout was high on my list of priorities, so after shooting Elliott’s first burnout and his team gathering around the car, I made a beeline to the rest of the Championship 4. With pictures of them in hand I started walking back to where the No. 9 was parked on the frontstretch when I saw Johnson pulling up.
Jimmie climbed out, met his family, and asked if they wanted to go see Chase. So when they began moving, so did I. We hopped the pit road wall and ran to where Chase Elliott had stopped. I had my camera trained on Jimmie until I looked over my shoulder while walking backward and then saw Bill approaching Chase. Instincts kicked in, and I knew I had to get this moment. I found a small gap among the dozens of media members and stuck my arm and camera through. I sat on the shutter for 24 frames over the course of two seconds hoping that at least one of them was properly composed and in focus. Quickly, I was moved aside by other photographers and videographers, but the moment was already over. Because of how quickly this all happened and because I wasn’t even looking in that direction until a second before, I didn’t pre-compose the shot or even use the viewfinder of the camera. I had no idea if I captured the scene and didn’t know until I returned to the media center a while later. Honestly, I have Jimmie and his family to thank for getting me back and in position to take this picture.
After slightly editing the photos and straightening the horizons, I shared the photo with my team back in Charlotte. From there they pushed it to all of our social media platforms and into a gallery on NASCAR.com. Fans loved it, making it one of our top pieces of content over the last couple of years. Chase eventually shared the photo on his Instagram, too, where it was received just as warmly.
This year, Chase Elliott became the first driver to win the Most Popular Driver award and the NASCAR Cup Series Championship since, well … Bill Elliott did it in 1988. Being able to capture this moment between two individuals who resonate so deeply with the NASCAR community was really satisfying to me, personally. Racing royalty, a family whose involvement spans multiple generations, and a father and son; I feel like each of those aspects makes this such a meaningful photo. Chase’s elation is second only to the pride you can clearly see in Bill’s eyes. Chase Elliott has grown up with the eyes of the garage on him and in this moment, it seemed like he had exceeded all of the expectations that have been placed on him. And better yet, his family was right there and able to experience this with him. In a year where so many things have been so difficult, it was refreshing just to see a purely wholesome moment shared between a family.
I feel like a photo like this preserves the emotions felt in the moment forever. Hopefully, years down the road, the Elliott family can look back at it and smile, and hopefully fans can look back and remember the day when their favorite driver joined the sport’s elite.