For the first time in 10 weeks, real live racecars hit the track and turned laps. The NASCAR season has been on hiatus since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they have finally made their return. During their season pause, current and former drivers took part in a simulation racing series through the iRacing software called the iRacing Pro Invitational Series.
NASCAR announced at the end of April that they would resume their season at Darlington Speedway on May 17. This race would mark the first of seven races over 11 days. NASCAR made a follow-up announcement this past week with their updated racing schedule through June 21, and none of these announced races will have fans present. To pay tribute to the frontline workers and their tireless efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR named this race The Real Heroes 400. Drivers had the name of a frontline worker written above their window, and each of these workers took part in being the Grand Marshal for Sunday’s race.
Sunday’s race looked very different from what racing fans are used to. To eliminate any unnecessary exposure, there was no practice and no qualifying before the race. Teams essentially unloaded their cars, worked on what they could and sent their drivers out for the drop of the green flag. The starting order was determined by a random drawing based on owner points, and the starting order for the cup race on Wednesday night is an inversion of positions 1-20 and 21-39 based on Sunday’s race results. For example, race winner Kevin Harvick will start 20th and 20th place finisher Ryan Preece will start on the pole. To make up for lost practice time, there was a competition caution flag at lap 30 where the field was frozen and teams could make two pit stops for adjustments without losing track position. Drivers were also limited in their interaction with their crews and each other as a necessary health precaution.
With all these safety measures in place, Darlington’s race could not have gone more smoothly. Every driver passed their pre-race examinations for coronavirus symptoms and fever checks, and with the help of masks and social distancing, we finally got to see some real racing. It’s safe to say plenty of first-time viewers turned in to Sunday’s race, and they got quite the show. Some important storylines before the race start were the return of Ryan Newman after his terrifying wreck at the Daytona 500 and the return of Matt Kenseth who is currently replacing suspended Kyle Larson.
Stage 1 saw 7-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, on the brink of securing a stage win and maybe his first race win in 99 starts. Unfortunately, Johnson made contact with the 17 car of Chris Buescher coming off of turn 2, spinning him out to the inside wall and therefore ending his day. Johnson’s teammate William Byron crossed the line first, giving him his first stage win of the season. View the Stage 1 results here.
The bad luck for Hendrick Motorsports continued in Stage 2 after William Byron makes contact with the outside wall due to a loose wheel. The 24 car was able to return to the race, but at 3 laps down their day was pretty much done. With just over 30 laps remaining in Stage 2, a piece from a banner on the track wall comes loose and flies right into the nose of Denny Hamlin’s car. Hamlin was able to remove the piece shortly after using the bumper of the 14 car, but NASCAR threw the caution flag 4 laps later to remove the sign off the wall. Cars file down pit road during the caution and the 4 car of Kevin Harvick continues to be the car to beat after winning the race off of pit road. The caution flag flies again for a spin by Christopher Bell with 13 to go in the stage. Happy Harvick wasn’t so happy with this pit stop. Harvick lost seven spots on pit road, forcing him to restart 8th. The 2 car of Brad Keselowski takes the stage 2 victory. View the Stage 2 results here.
Alex Bowman and Brad Keselowski lead the field to green for the start of Stage 3. Contact between Christopher Bell and Chris Buescher on Lap 212, which brings out the caution flag yet again. Harvick again wins the race off of pit road and then battles with Keselowski for the lead when the green flag drops. A spin by Newman with just over 40 laps to go brings out another caution. Harvick again wins the race off of pit road, (talk about an amazing pit stall selection), this time battling with Bowman on the restart. Harvick maintains the lead for the rest of the race and captures his first win of the season and the 50th win of his career. This win helped further Kevin Harvick’s lead in the point standings for this season, and it also marked a career-best finish for Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek. View the final race results here.
NASCAR will stay at Darlington and will be back on the track on Tuesday night at 8 for the Xfinity Series Toyota 200, and cup cars will be back in action on Wednesday night at 7:30 for the Toyota 500. While Sunday’s race was entertaining, back-to-back battles under the lights and one of NASCAR’s most historic and toughest tracks is must-see television.