DARLINGTON, S.C. — Live auto racing returned to national television on Sunday, after a 10-week layoff during the coronavirus pandemic, with the running of NASCAR’s 400-miler at Darlington Raceway. Kevin Harvick beat a field of 40 competitors in an eerie setting devoid of spectators and all the usual colorful, noisy hoopla.
Harvick, the series points leader, finished three seconds ahead of Alex Bowman to win the series’s first race back. Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five. After scoring his 50th career victory, Harvick, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., celebrated by turning scorching tire burnouts in front of the empty grandstands.
“It’s dead silent out here,” Harvick said, shaking his head. “How weird. We really miss the fans.”
The event provided NASCAR with a rare opportunity to be pretty much alone in the national spotlight (a charity golf exhibition was also televised on Sunday), to showcase its product to a wider audience and to try to quench fans’ thirst for a return to live-action events.
NASCAR racing is a thunderously loud sport perhaps better suited than some others to minimizing the distractions of cheering fans, mascots, cheerleaders and stadium organists. Racing itself is a tightly focused “man against machine” dynamic, as competitors joust with one another on circuits like the diabolical, oblong 1.366-mile track at Darlington Raceway. The so-called Track Too Tough to Tame is considered one of the most treacherous on the circuit.
Regardless of the outcome, the event was a big money loser for organizers. Conservative estimates placed the losses for 47,000 unsold seats and closed concessions and souvenir stands at $3 million to $5 million. But restarting racing was essential to serving an even higher cause: restarting the flow of media and sponsor dollars.
Absent from the track grounds was anyone and anything deemed nonessential to conduct the event, including team owners, family members, support staff — even the trophy girls. The race was allowed only under strict guidelines provided by the South Carolina governor’s office that were meant to minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Essential race personnel, including drivers, were allowed on-site at 7:30 a.m. on the day of the event. Each participant was subjected to a health screening, with the warning that anyone who tested positive for the virus would not be allowed entry. After the event, everyone was instructed to leave as soon as possible, so the raceway could be cleaned and disinfected before another round of events was scheduled for different competitors there later in the week.
This event was the first of an ambitious slate of 20 that NASCAR has rescheduled through June. All are in Southern states, including four events in an 11-day stretch for its premier Cup series. Each will be conducted under the same new restrictions.
None of the customary practice, qualifying or warm-up lap sessions were permitted. The driver Brad Keselowski was selected via a televised random draw to lead the field to the initial green flag. “First time I’ve ever won a pole position from my living room,” said Keselowski, who ended up running among the leaders for much of the race.
“To just fire off into Turn 1, throttle wide open, without taking a lap, all those cars right behind you — I can’t tell you how difficult that is,” said Jeff Gordon, a retired driver who is now a Fox announcer.
Racing with no preparation was something of a throwback to the early years of NASCAR, when the troupe would rush from one track one night to another the next with what old-timers called a “run what you brung” mind-set. The rust was immediately evident, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed on the first lap. The seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson slammed the wall on Lap 90 while leading Stage 1.
“Stuff happens,” Johnson grumbled afterward. “And it can happen quick around here. What I would do to get that corner back, to do over again.”
Most of the drivers had not raced since the last event, on March 8. During the break, at least three races were canceled and several others were rescheduled, including this Darlington event, which was originally scheduled for April.
The delays allowed Ryan Newman, who injured his brain in a final-lap crash at the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, time to heal and rejoin his team for the first time since then. He acquitted himself well, ran as high as 10th and completed the full race.
The race also saw the return of the retired series champion Matt Kenseth, who replaced Kyle Larson, who was fired last month from Chip Ganassi’s team after using a racial slur during an iRacing event.