DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — This was a 400-mile drive unlike any other in modern day NASCAR.
The grandstands were completely empty. There wasn’t a single tailgate 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 at Darlington Raceway following 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 motorsports series in the United States could successfully return to the track.
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 was coming into the sport whatsoever and the NASCAR business model can not sustain the lack of revenue. NASCAR developed a health plan approved by officials in both South Carolina and North Carolina and scheduled seven races over the next 11 days at two tracks. As other states began to open, the series tacked more races to fill the calendar with 20 events across seven Southern states between now and June 21. There will be no spectators at least through that date.
The industry had to be extremely careful because to even get to the Coca-Cola 600 next week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR had to get it right at Darlington. 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 in need, but competitors are supposed to log who they come into contact with, not return to the race shop after being at the track and continue to follow CDC guidelines on social distancing.
Among those to make it inside were Ryan Newman, 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. It was the 50th career victory for Harvick, in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. A previous winner at Darling- ton, Harvick led 159 of the 293 laps. Harvick tied Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 12th on NASCAR's all-time wins list.