The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series made its return Sunday in the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Speedway after an absence of more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There was no practice, no qualifying, no fans and ultimately no problem for Kevin Harvick who earned his 50th career win by taking his No. 4 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing to Victory Lane, beating Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports to the checkered flag with Kurt Busch finishing third, followed by Chase Elliott and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who was the top Toyota driver.
“I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do,” said Harvick, the 2014 series champion, during a post-race interview with FOX. “I didn’t think it was going to be that much different and then we won the race and it’s dead silent out here, so we miss the fans.”
Michigan native Erik Jones — Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate — entered as the defending race champion. Jones finished eighth, behind JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) and rookie Tyler Reddick (seventh) of Richard Childress Racing. Toyota drivers failed to lead a lap.
It had been 71 days since Team Penske's Joey Logano took the checkered flag at Phoenix in a Ford. And, drivers knew that it was their chance to take center stage on the sports world with other sports trying to figure a way to safely get back to business.
No doubt, it took NASCAR officials weeks to find a way to get back, deciding to stay close to the home to team’s shops in Charlotte, which was a short two-hour drive to Darlington. They will make a return trip to Darlington Wednesday night (7:30 p.m., FS1) for the 500K race.
NASCAR limited teams to 16 members. They made sure drivers’ temperatures were before and after the race.
Drivers’ recreational vehicles were allowed at the track, but not in the RV lot as usual. The vehicles were spread out throughout the infield. Drivers couldn’t stay in their motorhome the night before and were only allowed to the track four hours prior to the race, first getting screened, then sent directly to the motorhome. They were not allowed to meet with crew members.
The first time drivers could see their cars was when they took pit lane, while wearing masks for the national anthem, then climbed in to compete, bringing just one crew member with them to put the window net up and make sure they were strapped in properly. Crew chiefs sat in their pit box wearing masks as well.
Rochester Hills native and 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski was the pole sitter, getting that spot in the blind draw for the right to lead the field of 40 to green flag racing with Bowman, winning earlier this season at California, starting alongside him in the hot heat (85 degrees) of South Carolina.
Keselowski, who won at Darlington in 2018, was a little nervous to get back into racing at such a challenging track.
Ricky Stenhouse crashed on the first lap, going four-wide, making contact and going head-on into the inside wall and suffering heavy front-end damage.
The Competition Caution came out on Lap 30, freezing the field while also allowing drivers to take two trips to pit lane to make adjustments and get tires and fuel.
Keselowski, who came in as the race leader, said his No. 2 Ford Mustang was too loose off of Turn 2 and told his crew that the track had less grip as the laps went on. He finished 13th.
Ryan Newman, who was making his return since a horrific crash in the season-opening Daytona 500, was running 15th at the Competition Caution, and Matt Kenseth was in 12th. Kenseth was making his first start since the 2018 season, taking over the No. 42 seat of Kyle Larson who was fired by car owner Chip Ganassi after Larson’s racial slur during an iRacing event last month.
Kenseth had a strong run, finishing 10th with Newman, 15th.
There wasn’t another accident until seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, while leading on the final lap of Stage 1 ran into the back of the slower car driven by Chris Buescher, resulting in his No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro slamming into the inside wall to finish 37th.
“What I would do to get that corner back to do it over again,” said Johnson, who left with a 100-race winless streak. “Coming into the end of the stage and just trying to making sure I got a good run off of Turn 2. I felt like I was going to exit the corner side-by-side with him and then things just went horribly wrong there. What a great car, I feel terrible for my team.”
The Hendrick Motorsports team was at its best before Johnson’s crash with his teammate William Byron going on to win Stage 1 with Bowman — their teammate — finishing third.
Early in Stage 2, Byron’s tire went down, putting him into the wall on Lap 109, but Bowman stayed out of trouble and finished second to Keselowski in the 95-lap Stage 2 with Truex finishing third, Harvick fourth and Clint Bowyer, fifth.
Harvick, the series points leader, had to feel he was in good position heading to the final 108 laps on the 1.33-mile oval.
And, Keselowski had to also feel good about things after leading 57 of the 188 laps in the search of his first win in more than a year or since Kansas last May. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano owned two wins this season.
Harvick continued his strong day while Keselowski failed to finish the deal. Harvick led 159 of the 293 laps to make sure NASCAR was back to business.