The grandstands were completely empty. There wasn’t a single tailgate inside the track. Everyone wore face coverings — some with the team logos, others opting for plain disposable medical masks.
It was nothing close to the corporate sponsorship, pomp and patriotic traveling circus that symbolizes NASCAR.
But when the engines fired at Darlington Raceway following a 10-week layoff during the coronavirus pandemic, it turned into a regular old race.
Kevin Harvick beat Alex Bowman to win NASCAR’s first race back, a spectacle closely watched to see if the largest motorsports series in the United States could successfully return to the track.
It was a crucial gamble for NASCAR, which had to get back to the track to stave off financial ruin. With races on hold, no money was coming into the sport whatsoever and the NASCAR business model can not sustain the lack of revenue.
NASCAR developed a health plan approved by officials in both South Carolina and North Carolina and scheduled seven races over the next 11 days at two tracks. As other states began to open, the series tacked more races to fill the calendar with 20 events across seven Southern states between now and June 21. There will be no spectators at least through that date.
This first event was called the “The Real Heroes 400” and dedicated to health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The names of health care workers across the country were substituted for the drivers’ name above the door on each of the 40 cars.
Bowman, who signed a one-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports on Saturday, was second. Kurt Busch, winner of the closest finish in Darlington history, was third for Ganassi.
Chase Elliott gave Hendrick two cars in the top-four. Denny Hamlin was the highest-finishing Toyota driver at fifth for Joe Gibbs Racing, one spot ahead of teammate Martin Truex Jr.
Tyler Reddick, a rookie with Richard Childres Racing, was seventh at “The Track Too Tough To Tame.”
Erik Jones, the winner of the Southern 500 here last September, was eighth and John Hunter Nemechek was the second rookie inside the top-10 at one of the most technical tracks on the circuit. It was the first top-10 for Front Row Motorsports on a track other than a superspeedway in three years.
It was the 50th career victory for Harvick, in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. A previous winner at Darlington, Harvick led 159 of the 293 laps.
Harvick tied Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 12th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list.