The photos showing Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 winner Kevin Harvick standing by his shiny, hard-earned trophy in Darlington Raceway Victory Lane – wearing a facemask and flashing a victory sign – depict a new normal for the sport in reaction to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
What you can’t see are Harvick’s young children ecstatically celebrating in front of their home’s television set or the sport’s massive fandom high-fiving as a huge national television audience watched or listened to the race on NASCAR radio networks. The grandstands were empty, but hearts were full as NASCAR adeptly ushered in one of the first real-time sports competitions during these unusual and hyper-cautious times.
Social media was full of reaction from “first-timers” checking out the race broadcast, eager to see what NASCAR’s brand of racing is all about. And judging from the feedback – both from longtime fans and rookie race watchers – Sunday’s race action produced a lot of new converts. Most importantly, for the sport, it provided a dose of normalcy in what has become a rather unprecedented time - creating a lot of eager anticipation for Wednesday’s Toyota 500 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Things actually went smoother than we could have expected, getting all the teams in," NASCAR Executive Vice President, Chief Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said. “Inspection went well. All in all, a good day for the sport. Excited to be back. Hopefully the fans enjoyed it on television. Odd not having the fans in the stands but we know the fans were with us in spirit for sure."
Former series champion Kurt Busch equaled his season-best finish (third) on Sunday and was still smiling sitting in his motor coach in the track’s infield as he participated in a video post-race teleconference with the media.
“The feelings, the nerves, the anxiety, the excitement, knowing we were in unchartered territory. I would call today a success all the way around," said Busch, who drives the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
A lot of eyes were watching, from longtime loyal fans to potential new fans eager to see what NASCAR was all about. The viewership also included the country’s other major sports leagues curious to see how NASCAR initiated its return and how it fared.
And the initial reviews have been positive.
There was certainly plenty to take in on Sunday with former champions such as Harvick, Busch and Brad Keselowski sparing with talented young drivers such as race runner-up Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott.
The 1.366-mile egg-shaped Darlington track is one of the oldest facilities that NASCAR competes on and its unique shape and challenge-set has traditionally made it one of the toughest venues on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. That innate complexity certainly made for an interesting first few competitive laps back.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun out before finishing the first lap and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson – who is retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season – crashed out while leading the field as he approached the checkered flag during the first of the race’s three stages.
Ultimately, drivers and teams – whose members had not spent any time in proximity for the last two months – settled in and the racing was intense and the outcome hard-earned.
That intensity may have been especially true for a couple of competitors. Ryan Newman was back behind the wheel of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford for the first time since being injured in an accident in the Feb. 16 Daytona 500. He ran among the top 10 – even scoring points in Stage 1 – and finished 15th.
It was also Matt Kenseth’s season debut in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – the former series champion is replacing Kyle Larson behind the wheel for the remainder of the season. It was Kenseth’s first NASCAR Cup Series race since the 2018 season finale and the popular veteran finished 10th on Sunday.
“First off, thanks to NASCAR and everyone else involved in working to make today happen," said Kenseth, the 2013 Darlington winner. “Overall today turned out really well for us. The first few laps were kind of nerve-racking, but then it was sort of back to racing and thinking about what we needed to be better."
Kenseth added, “It’s always a good feeling to get a top-10 finish at a place like Darlington, but to have done it under these circumstances feels that much better."
With the first race back under their belts, the drivers felt genuinely and openly optimistic that Wednesday’s night race at the track deemed 'too tough to tame' would be another can’t-miss show. Harvick – who led a race high 159 laps on Sunday and beat Bowman to the finish line by 2.154-seconds - is looking to score his ninth consecutive top-10 - dating back to last season.
He is one of only two drivers to win multiple times in the last 15 Darlington races (also Hamlin). Two-time winners Harvick, Hamlin and Johnson are the only multi-time race champs in the field.
With no qualifying or practice on track, NASCAR has determined the starting lineup for Wednesday night’s race. The top-20 finishers from Sunday will be inverted for Wednesday’s event. The bottom 20 finishes will start from their Sunday finishing positions. That means Sunday’s 20th-place finisher, JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece will start from the pole position alongside 19th-place finisher, Germain Racing’s Ty Dillon.
“Everybody's excited about being back, but there's still that awkwardness of not wanting to screw anything up," said Harvick, who earned his 50th career victory on Sunday. “We didn't really want to communicate closely or do anything that might look wrong. I think today's message was really important to be able to make sure it was sent correctly.
“We all talked about it before we got in the car today, just about how excited we are to be back at the racetrack. Even if we're just talking to each other on the radio, at least we're at the racetrack performing and doing what we love to do."
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES RETURNS
NASCAR’s Xfinity Series drivers are eager to resume the race schedule on Tuesday with the Toyota 200 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) from Darlington Raceway – the second major NASCAR race to take place since a two-month long pause in action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youth certainly served notice in the early portion of the season with 19-year-old Harrison Burton scoring top-five finishes in the opening four races to date, scoring his first career Xfinity Series victory at Auto Club Speedway in March. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota holds a three point edge atop the standings over Chase Briscoe, who drove the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 98 Ford to victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has a pair of top-five finishes himself.
Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, is third in the standings – 21 points behind Burton - with a pair of top-five finishes including a season-best runner-up to Briscoe at Las Vegas. Brandon Jones, the series most recent winner – March 7 at Phoenix Raceway – is fourth in the standings, only 28 points off Burton.
Popular driver Ross Chastain is fifth in the championship with three top-10 finishes in the Kaulig Racing No. 10 and 21-year old Noah Gragson, the JR Motorsports driver who won a dramatic season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, is only 33 points off the standing leader's pace.
The top nine drivers are only separated by 38 points heading to Darlington, where that ninth place driver, veteran Justin Allgaier holds an enviable track resume. The 33-year old perennial championship contender has six top-10 finishes in nine starts there, including the last three years. And his 140 laps out front in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet is the high mark of the 2020 season.
None of these talented drivers has ever won at Darlington before. And Burton’s case, he’ll be making his Darlington debut with absolutely no practice. As with the NASCAR Cup Series, the race lineup was set by a draw. Burton will start 12th, alongside Briscoe. Gragson drew the pole position and will start on the front row alongside his JR Motorsports teammate Michael Annett.
“I had that conversation with my team trying to figure out how we could keep momentum rolling and kind of stay in the swing of things," Burton said. “And we came to the conclusion we kind of just had to be ourselves and do what we were doing right in the beginning.
“The more we focused on trying to just over-analyze everything and focus on just trying to come back with the same momentum and all this, it would probably be detrimental. We figured if we can start the season good the first time, we can re-start it good the second time. We’re going to approach it that way."
Cole Custer, now a rookie in the NASCAR Cup Series, is the most recent Darlington Xfinity Series winner – earning the trophy last Fall over fellow 2020 Cup Series rookie and eventual 2019 Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick. Briscoe’s sixth-place finish last year was best among those competing this weekend.
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch will roll off 26th on Tuesday. He’s scheduled to race in all seven of NASCAR’s first races back – three at Darlington (NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity) and four events at Charlotte Motor Speedway next week (two NASCAR Cup Series races and one each in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series).
He's a two-time winner (2011 and 2013) in the Xfinity Series at Darlington.