Kevin Harvick didn't look the slightest bit rusty after a two-month hiatus from racing. Instead, on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, the Cup Series points leader sailed to his 50th career victory to continue a dominant 2020 campaign. He then exited his car for a quiet celebration.
"I didn't think it was going to be that much different and then it's dead silent out here," Harvick said during an interview on Fox TV right after the race, acknowledging the unusual pre- and post-race circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. "So we miss the fans."
NASCAR implemented a strict set of COVID-19 event protocols in order to run the race amid the pandemic. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell called the event a success.
"Things actually went smoother than we expected," O'Donnell said. "Getting all the teams in and inspection went well. All-in-all, a really good day for the sport. Excited to be back. Hopefully the fans enjoyed it on television."
O'Donnell said there would be a meeting with officials on Monday to discuss the event procedures, and that NASCAR did not need to reprimand anyone for not wearing a mask as required. State health officials were also on-site to oversee the procedures.
In terms of racing, Steward-Haas Racing driver Harvick led the most laps (123) of the 293-lap event and maintained his lead over No. 88 driver Alex Bowman, who finished in second place, to advance to Victory Lane for a quiet celebration. No. 1 driver Kurt Busch finished in third place.
Bowman and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson couldn't have had more different Darlington experiences. The No. 88 driver, Bowman continued a successful 2020 campaign with another top-three finish, leading 41 laps. Johnson, on the other hand, had the lead for nine laps and nearly won the first stage of the race before tapping No. 17 driver Chris Buescher rounding Turn 2. The contact caused Johnson to spin out and exit the race just before he could secured the stage win. It was a tough blow for the No. 48 driver, who earlier this year announced this would be his final year of full-time Cup racing.
"I felt like I was going to be able to exit the corner side-by-side with (Buechser) and things just went horribly wrong there," Johnson said. " ... It's just unfortunate that things really didn't turn out there off of Turn 2."
The 1.366-mile raceway proved to be a tough track to re-acclimate to racing for some drivers, including another Hendrick driver William Byron, who won the first stage of the race before crashing out on Lap 95. Still, others found success, including rookies Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek.
Reddick started in 29th place and raced his way into seventh place, while Nemechek started 38th on a grid of 40 and finished behind Reddick in ninth, putting two rookies in the top 10.
Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, two drivers who had not raced during prior events, also had strong showings.
NASCAR's next Cup Series race will be in three days at the same Darlington track.
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