RAINELLE, WV – Sitting at home to cover a race on television is not the ideal place to be on race day, but one could not fail to realize how important this had become.
NASCAR was the first major sport to go back live with an event since most everyone was staying home to avoid the Coronavirus. The stands were empty, drivers and crews wore masks, and so did reporters, as few as there was.
A big audience of viewers saw a good race. It worked! The image of winner Kevin Harvick saying to his crew, “I don’t know what to do,” after winning the Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway and an even starker scene as we saw Harvick alone in victory lane, all alone as the trophy sat on a stand.
Racing was back! Everyone wore facemasks, but you could tell who was behind the masks. The racing was good between drivers who had not been on a track since early March. It was a joy, and surely the grades will be good on how the sanctioning body handled the event. One had to wonder, though, when on the first lap, Ricky Stenhouse crashed, but all went well.
As usual, there were mishaps, unusual events that happen at most races but magnified on the first time back after a pandemic. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson crashed while leading on the final lap of the first stage, a better result than Stenhouse, but not much. A fire broke out on the property that gave us a smoke show, which was surprising because there was no crowd. This is could only happen to NASCAR, but the smoke went harmlessly away.
To make this safe, there were lots of rules. Teams were required to submit rosters in advance with only 16 members allotted per car. Names were on a list at a checkpoint at the end of a gravel road near the speedway and everyone who passed through had their temperature checked and logged before they could enter. Everyone passed inspection and prepared to race with no practice and no qualifying. The field was determined by a draw. Unusual times for sure.
Ryan Newman was back for the first time since he suffered a head injury exactly three months ago in a wreck on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Newman missed only three races because of NASCAR’s shutdown and finished 15th in his return. Matt Kenseth was back after replacing Kyle Larson in Chip Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet. He finished in 10th place.
It all came down to Harvick and Alex Bowman. They battled closely for the first few laps, but The Closer, as Harvick is called, always ran out to multi-second leads. Harvick led 159 laps and Bowman led 41. Brad Keselowski led 80 laps, but he faltered late and finished 13th. 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.
It was the 50th career victory for Harvick, in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. A previous winner at Darlington, Harvick joins Joey Logano, Bowman, and Denny Hamlin as 2020 winners. Harvick tied Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 12th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list.
NASCAR’s elite Cup Series next races Wednesday night at Darlington Raceway which is hosting three events in four days before the sport shifts to Charlotte Motor Speedway.