#NASCARIsBack: Kevin Harvick takes the checkered flag at Darlington
The racing world came back to life at The Track Too Tough To Tame without fans in the stands and limited team participation. Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led a race-high 159 laps of the 293-lap event around the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval in South Carolina and took the win after bringing the field to green after a late-race caution led to a restart.
Harvick and Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver Alex Bowman engaged in a hard-fought, side-by-side battle for the lead, which Harvick held on to all the way through the checkered flag.
Sunday’s victory marked Harvick’s 50th at NASCAR’s premiere level, making him the 14th driver in Cup Series history to reach that milestone. Harvick broke a tie with Tony Stewart at 49 wins and is now tied with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 12th place on the all-time list.
The win also marked Harvick’s second career Cup win at Darlington in 24 tries.
Bowman came in second, followed by Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kurt Busch and Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five in his Toyota, while Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Kenseth completed the top 10.
Kenseth was making his NASCAR return after retiring from the sport at the end of the 2018 season, replacing Kyle Larson in the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson was released from the race team after he used a racial slur during an iRacing stream event.
Also making his NASCAR return since his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500, Ryan Newman finished 15th in his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Newman brought out the final caution of the afternoon after he spun in Turn 1 with a tire down.
Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who earned the pole position from a random draw, wound up 13th after winning Stage 2. Stage 1 winner and Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron finished 35th after a flat tire on Lap 110 ruined his chances for a decent finish.
Harvick made the fanless event look like a Sunday drive instead of an episode out of “Life After People” in what will go down as one of the strangest races in NASCAR history. Masks, social distancing, remote broadcasting and a fan-free speedway were among the most noticeable differences in NASCAR’s return. NASCAR chose the oldest speedway on the Cup circuit as the safest place to restart its season after eight events were postponed amid the pandemic.
NASCAR had been facing a financial collapse if races didn’t resume on national television. NASCAR was also the “talk of Twitter” as the most commented topic on the social media platform and the event also introduced NASCAR to many new fans, some who had never watched an event until Sunday.
The first race back was deemed The Real Heroes 400 and was dedicated to health care workers on the front lines.
“I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do. I didn’t think it would be that much different if we won the race, but it’s dead silent here,” Harvick said after exiting his car at the start/finish line. “We miss the fans.”
Much of Harvick’s game plan like the other drivers and teams was formed from no practice and no qualifying for the event. The California driver said that “I think as you look at Darlington and you look at the things that happened this week, I really thought it could play into our hands just because our guys are just so good at hitting the car (set-up right) off the truck for the most part,” he said. “We spent a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of studying, a lot of meetings. Man, I’m excited. It is weird just because there’s nobody up there (in the stands).”
NASCAR will resume racing again on Wednesday night in a prime-time race also to be held at Darlington Raceway before going back to Charlotte and the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.
Story by Rod Mullins | Augusta Free Press