Well, they did it. NASCAR put 40 of its Cup series cars on track Sunday and went racing for real for the first time in 71 days.
And at the end of the day it was Kevin Harvick who stood in front of the empty grandstands celebrating his second Darlington win the last coming in 2014.
Harvick was strong all day leading a race high 159 of the 294 laps. He took the lead on the final time with 31 laps to go after the races 10th and final caution and was able to hold off Alex Bowman after a side by side battle. Once he had the lead back Harvick was able to stretch it out for the win.
“I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do. I didn’t think it would be that much different if we won the race, but it’s dead silent here,” Harvick said after exiting his car at the start/finish line. “We miss the fans.”
Bowman was second followed by Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.
The leadup to the Real Heroes 400 was like nothing seen in the history of the sport. There were no fans and only minimal crews and officials. There were approximately 900 people in all, and all had to be checked prior to entering the grounds. Instead of Charlotte Motor Speedway (the original schedule had the series racing the All-Star Race Saturday night at Charlotte followed by the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday) the series was at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, a three-hour drive from Charlotte the home base for most teams, and was only a one-day show. The lineups were set by a random draw, there was no practice and the pre-race activities were all virtual.
But the empty stands, and lack of crowds in the stands didn’t matter once the green flag dropped. With no time behind wheel the fear of a first lap melee didn’t come to fruition. There was a caution on the first lap, but that happened near the back of the field when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went four wide trying to get position and was the lone car sent spinning nose first into the inside wall and out of the race.
The second yellow was a competition caution on lap 30. In another break from normal, the field was frozen in position to allow teams to make adjustments for the first time to cars which had been prepared by others in their respective shops to keep crews compartmentalized.
Brad Keselowski led from the pole by virtue of a random draw. He would lead a total of 80 laps most of those coming in the first 50.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was a factor early in the going. After starting eighth, he took the lead on lap 80 near the end of Stage 1. On the final lap of the Stage however, exiting turn two and heading onto the backstretch Johnson tried to go under the slower car of Chris Buescher. The two got together and Johnson’s Chevy was sent nose-first into the inside wall. Johnson finished 37th.
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron won that first stage, but his hopes for a win came to an end a few laps after the green came back out when a loose wheel sent his Chevy into the wall.
Keselowski won Stage 2, but the only issue Harvick had was a slow pit stop near lap 178 when his front tire changer got the air hose caught up during the stop. Harvick restarted eighth after the stop but thanks in large part to a pit stall near turn 1, had no issues on subsequent stops and was able to get back to the front, take the lead and the win.
The race featured a couple of bizarre moments including a caution for a banner that had been torn from the wall.
Martin Truex Jr. struggled in the early going and suffered a hole in the front of his Toyota but rallied back to finish sixth. Tyler Reddick was seventh, Erik Jones eighth, with John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Kenseth in his first race since 2018 rounded out the top 10.
Ryan Newman, in his first race back since a crash at the season opening Daytona 500, ran towards the front for much of the race, but a spin late in the race left him with a 15th place finish.
The was the 50th of Harvick’s Cup career breaking a tie with his boss Tony Stewart.
Harvick said it “didn’t seem real” to have won 50 Cup races.
“I think as you look at Darlington and you look at the things that happened this week, I really thought it could play into our hands just because our guys are just so good at hitting the car (set-up right) off the truck for the most part,” he said. “We spent a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of studying, a lot of meetings. Man, I’m excited. It is weird just because there’s nobody up there (in the stands).”
NASCAR needed to get its teams racing as many were facing financial ruin. Much of the money the sport earns comes from the TV broadcasts. That hadn’t happened since the Phoenix race in March.
In total eight races were postponed, and Sunday’s Darlington race was the first of NASCAR’s plan to make up those events. It was the first of 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21. Darlington will host two more NASCAR races over the next three days. The Cup series will race there again this Wednesday night.
NASCAR Cup Series Race Results The Real Heroes 400
Darlington, South Carolina
Sunday, May 17, 2020
1. (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 293.
2. (2) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 293.
3. (22) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 293.
4. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 293.
5. (10) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 293.
6. (15) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 293.
7. (29) Tyler Reddick #, Chevrolet, 293.
8. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota, 293.
9. (34) John Hunter Nemechek #, Ford, 293.
10. (12) Matt Kenseth, Chevrolet, 293.
11. (16) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 293.
12. (5) Aric Almirola, Ford, 293.
13. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 293.
14. (3) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 293.
15. (21) Ryan Newman, Ford, 293.
16. (7) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 293.
17. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 293.
18. (9) Joey Logano, Ford, 293.
19. (33) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 293.
20. (25) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 293.
21. (17) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 293.
22. (14) Cole Custer #, Ford, 293.
23. (31) Michael McDowell, Ford, 293.
24. (28) Christopher Bell #, Toyota, 293.
25. (37) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 292.
26. (4) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 292.
27. (35) Brennan Poole #, Chevrolet, 292.
28. (30) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, 291.
29. (36) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 291.
30. (32) Joey Gase(i), Ford, 289.
31. (19) Corey LaJoie, Ford, 289.
32. (24) Chris Buescher, Ford, 287.
33. (38) Timmy Hill(i), Toyota, 286.
34. (40) Josh Bilicki(i), Chevrolet, 286.
35. (18) William Byron, Chevrolet, 279.
36. (27) Quin Houff #, Chevrolet, Electrical, 137.
37. (26) Garrett Smithley #, Chevrolet, Power Steering, 127.
38. (8) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, Accident, 89.
39. (39) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, Engine, 13.
40. (23) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 0.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 115.815 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 27 Mins, 21 Secs. Margin of Victory: 2.154 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 10 for 57 laps.
Lead Changes: 10 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: B. Keselowski 1-44;A. Bowman 45-80;J. Johnson 81-89;W. Byron 90-92;A. Bowman 93;K. Harvick 94-174;J. Yeley(i) 175;B. Keselowski 176-188;A. Bowman 189-192;B. Keselowski 193-215;K. Harvick 216-293.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kevin Harvick 2 times for 159 laps; Brad Keselowski 3 times for 80 laps; Alex Bowman 3 times for 41 laps; Jimmie Johnson 1 time for 9 laps; William Byron 1 time for 3 laps; JJ Yeley(i) 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 24,11,88,4,2,10,14,8,6,9
Stage #2 Top Ten: 2,88,19,4,14,1,37,22,11,20