DARLINGTON, S.C. — This was a 400-mile drive unlike any other in modern day NASCAR.
The grandstands were completely empty. There wasn't a single tailgating party 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 on Cup Series cars Sunday afternoon at Darlington Raceway after 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 racing series in the United States could successfully resume work.
"I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do," Harvick said. "I didn't think it was going to be that different, but it's dead silent out here. We miss the fans."
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 whatsoever was coming into the sport, and the NASCAR business model cannot sustain the lack of revenue.
NASCAR developed a health plan approved by officials in both South Carolina and North Carolina and scheduled a combined seven races for its three national series in an 11-day span that started Sunday, with all of the events at either Darlington or Charlotte Motor Speedway. A second-tier Xfinity Series race will be held Tuesday night at Darlington, which then hosts another Cup Series event Wednesday night.
As other states began to open, the series tacked more races to fill the calendar with a confirmed 20 events in 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 was dedicated to healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The names of healthcare workers across the country were substituted for the drivers' name above the door on each of the 40 cars.
Harvick's car honored Dr. Joshua Hughes, an emergency medicine physician in the Charlotte area.
"Josh is one of my really good friends. I spend a lot of time talking to him through this pandemic and really have heard how those doctors are affected with everything they have going on with their personal life and whether they're sick, not sick, how they should treat people," said Harvick, whose Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford led 159 of the 293 laps.
It was the 50th Cup Series victory for the 44-year-old Harvick, whose only other win on the top circuit at Darlington came in 2014, the year he won the season championship. Harvick tied NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 12th on the Cup Series' all-time wins list.
"I'm just really honored and really thankful for all of our front line workers, not only our doctors, but grocery stores, truck drivers, fire fighters, police departments — you name it," Harvick added. "All of you front line workers are the reason that we're here today and our country is actually still running."
The honored healthcare workers gave the command to start the engines, doing so via video.
"These heroes will signal that NASCAR has returned, bringing back the intense competition and side-by-side racing we've all missed," NASCAR president Steve Phelps wrote in a letter to fans released Sunday morning. "Our drivers, race teams and officials have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get back to the race track, and we want to assure you that we have taken the return to racing very seriously."
The industry had to be extremely careful, because to even get to the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in suburban Concord, NASCAR had to get it right at Darlington. Steve O'Donnell, executive vice president of NASCAR, was pleased with the collective effort from the industry.
"We didn't have to tell anyone or remind anyone to wear a mask," O'Donnell said. "It felt a little odd with the garage area because it was scaled down in terms of personnel, but all in all, I think it went really well."
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 just off Harry Byrd Highway, and everyone who passed through had their temperature checked and logged before they could enter.
NASCAR did not have to turn anyone away, and all 40 drivers were cleared to race. NASCAR has declined to do COVID-19 testing to ensure those tests go to those most in need.
Among those to make it inside were Ryan Newman, back for the first time since he sustained a head injury exactly three months ago in a frightening crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Newman, who missed only three races because of NASCAR's shutdown, finished 15th in his return.
Also in the field was Matt Kenseth, who at 48 was the oldest driver at Darlington; he raced for the first time since the 2018 season finale and finished 10th in his return. Kenseth was brought out of retirement by Chip Ganassi when Kyle Larson was fired for using a racial slur during one of the iRacing events intended to keep NASCAR drivers and fans occupied when racing was on hold.
The odd and empty setting was the backdrop for some typical NASCAR mishaps. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson crashed while leading on the final lap of the first stage, a better result than Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who barely made it out of the second turn before he crashed, didn't finish the first lap and wound up last.
Even without fans allowed on the property, a small grass fire still broke out behind a section of the track. Gray smoke billowed during a caution, which isn't that odd a sight at a NASCAR race.
Bowman, who signed a one-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports on Saturday, was one spot of ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kurt Busch, winner of the closest finish in Darlington history.
Chase Elliott gave Hendrick two cars in the top four, and Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin was the highest-finishing Toyota driver at fifth, one spot ahead of teammate Martin Truex Jr. Tyler Reddick, a rookie with Richard Childress Racing, was seventh at "The Track Too Tough To Tame."
Erik Jones, winner of the Southern 500 last September at Darlington, 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 finish for Front Row Motorsports on a track other than a superspeedway in three years.
Team Penske's Brad Keselowski, who started in pole position after getting the best draw among the top 12 in the points standings — there was no qualifying or practice ahead of the return race — finished 13th.
Updated 2020 national series schedule of confirmed races through June, with all times p.m. and TV listing in parentheses:
Tuesday, May 19 — Xfinity: At Darlington, 8 (FS1)
Wednesday, May 20 — Cup: 500k at Darlington, 7:30 (FS1)
Sunday, May 24 — Cup: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C., 6 (Fox)
Monday, May 25 — Xfinity: Alsco 300 at Charlotte, 7:30 (FS1)
Tuesday, May 26 — Truck: North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte, 8 (FS1)
Wednesday, May 27 — Cup: At Charlotte, 8 (FS1)
Saturday, May 30 — Xfinity: Cheddar’s 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tenn., 3:30 (FS1)
Sunday, May 31 — Cup: Food City 500 at Bristol, 3:30 (FS1)
Saturday, June 6 — Truck: Vet Tix/Camping World 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga., 1 (FS1)
Saturday, June 6 — Xfinity: EchoPark 250 at Atlanta, 4:30 (Fox)
Sunday, June 7 — Cup: Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta, 3 (Fox)
Wednesday, June 10 — Cup: Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Martinsville, Va., 7 (FS1)
Saturday, June 13 — Truck: At Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead, Fla., 12:30 (FS1)
Saturday, June 13 — Xfinity: At Homestead-Miami, 3:30 (Fox)
Sunday, June 14 — Xfinity: At Homestead-Miami, noon (FS1)
Sunday, June 14 — Cup: Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami, 3:30 (Fox)
Saturday, June 20 — Xfinity: MoneyLion 300 at Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Ala., 5:30 (FS1)
Sunday, June 21 — Cup: GEICO 500 at Talladega, 3 (Fox)