LONG POND, Pa. — Kevin Harvick snapped an 0-for-38 drought at Pocono Raceway, taking the checkered flag Saturday at one of two tracks where victory had eluded him on stock car racing's top circuit.
Harvick won the first of two NASCAR Cup Series races in front of no fans this weekend at the Tricky Triangle and will start 20th on Sunday, when the field will be set by inverting the lead-lap finishers.
The 44-year-old Californian who won the 2014 season title has been to victory lane at every active track except Kentucky Speedway, where he's 0-for-9. Saturday's win was the third this season for the veteran Stewart-Haas Racing driver.
Harvick held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin for the 52nd victory of his Cup Series career. He had 12 top-five finishes in his other 38 starts at Pocono, but despite finally breaking through, he held off on the celebratory burnout — Harvick needs the same car for Sunday's race.
"That's great to finally check Pocono off the list," he said.
Ryan Preece finished 20th and will start in pole position Sunday.
The race was scheduled as the second event Saturday, but rain washed out the Truck Series. That sets up a small slice of history Sunday: the third-tier Truck Series, second-tier Xfinity Series and top-tier Cup Series will all run, with the races at 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively and FS1 televising them all. It's the first time three NASCAR national series races will be held on the same day at the same track.
NASCAR wanted the trip to Pocono to settle one of the most tumultuous stretches in its history after a noose found in Bubba Wallace's stall last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama led to a federal investigation. The incident was not ruled a hate crime, but NASCAR president Steve Phelps stated "the noose was real" and shared photo evidence of the rope, though it remains unknown who tied it.
Wallace, who sparked NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag, has become NASCAR's advocate for social change and acknowledged his time in the national spotlight left him "wore the hell out." He finished 22nd in the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet on Saturday.
The weekend should have been one of the wildest ones in Pocono history. Track officials were optimistic the infield would be jammed with race fans who wanted to experience four NASCAR races in two days.
"The infield would have been a sight to be seen, one that probably hasn't been seen on the NASCAR circuit in decades," Pocono Raceway CEO Nick Igdalsky said. "We just couldn't see it this year. Hopefully, next year we get the opportunity to really show what we can put out here."
Brad Keselowski, who raced to his lone Pocono win in 2011, tweeted a love letter of sorts tied to his memories of the track that date to his childhood when he tagged along to watch his father, Bob, compete in races on the ARCA series, which had an event here Friday.
"Perhaps that brings out the saddest emotion, not having fans this year at Pocono for our races.," the Team Penske driver wrote on Twitter. "The energy and enthusiasm here from the infield crowd has a realness to it unlike other tracks. In Pocono, the community makes NASCAR feel truly loved, we miss you race fans."
There was a new look all around the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
The track cloaked its leaderboard in advertisements because the pandemic wreaked havoc with plans to upgrade to a modern LED scoring tower. Pocono also had 1,250 fans virtually sign the start/finish line. Staff members hand wrote each name on the line ahead of race weekend. The 1,250 number matched the scheduled number of miles to be run this weekend. Pocono even sold on its website a race weekend T-shirt with "Quarantined" stamped over the logo.
Talladega Superspeedway was allowed up to 5,000 fans for its race weekend. Only 1,000 fans, mostly military members and their guests, were allowed the week before that at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida, though it was still notable as the first race with spectators since the return amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Pocono Raceway is in Monroe County, which entered the green designation in Pennsylvania's reopening. The green phase limits public gatherings to 250 people, but Gov. Tom Wolf's guidance to professional sports mandates no spectators, even in green.
"I wish you were here," Harvick said to the fans watching at home. "This wasn't nearly as exciting."