After 71 days, NASCAR returns; Kevin Harvick earns 50th career Cup win

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After a 10-week hiatus, NASCAR returned to real-life racing Sunday – without fans for the first time in the sport’s history due to the COVID-19 pandemic – as Kevin Harvick held off Alex Bowman to win the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway.

It was Harvick’s 50th career Cup win, his first win of the season and his first since at Texas last fall. It was also his second career win at the 1.366-mile paperclip-sized facility known as the “Track Too Tough To Tame.”

“I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do,” Harvick told Fox Sports. “Then we won the race and it’s dead silent out here. We miss the fans.

“It’s a pretty big honor to win 50 races in this deal and I just have to thank all my team guys and everybody for what they’re doing. … We’re bringing home the trophy. It doesn’t seem real (that he’s won 50 races).”

Harvick leaves Darlington No. 1 in the Cup point standings — the same position he has been in since the last Cup race more than two months ago.

“Man, I’m excited,” Harvick said. “It is weird because there’s nobody up there (in the stands). … I’m speechless.”

Due to social distancing restrictions, Kevin Harvick celebrated in an empty victory lane after winning Sunday’s Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harvick ties NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson with 50 career Cup wins, leaving all three in a tie for 12th place on the sport’s all-time wins list.

Bowman signed a one-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports on Saturday.

“It was a lot of fun to race a guy like Kevin at a place like Darlington,” Bowman said. “It sucks to finish second, but it’s really good to restart the season this way with a strong car off the truck. We just needed a little bit more … and just came up a little bit short.”

Kurt Busch finished third in the 293-lap, 400.5-mile race, followed by Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.

“I’m the happiest guy in the world, I got to drive 200 mph today, passing cars, felt the energy of the race car and just to be out here and to have a job,” said Busch, who earned his 13th top-10 career finish in 25 Cup races at Darlington. “I miss the race fans, we didn’t have you here, but I felt you through the (TV) cameras.”

Two other notable finishers were Matt Kenseth (10th) in his first Cup race since the 2018 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Ryan Newman (15th), in his first race back since a horrific crash in the season-opening Daytona 500.

The last Cup race prior to the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the race season was March 8 at Phoenix Raceway (Joey Logano was the winner).

Brad Keselowski earned the pole by blind draw, while Bowman was alongside on the front row.

With no practice or qualifying, it didn’t take long for the first incident of the race to occur as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with Corey LaJoie’s car on Lap 1.

Stenhouse’s car bounced off LaJoie’s car, hit the wall on the backstretch, sustaining heavy damage and subsequently breaking into flames from the rear of his No. 47 car. Stenhouse finished last in the 40-car field.

Two other notables knocked out were race leader Jimmie Johnson (finished 38th) on the final lap of Stage 1, while eventual Stage 1 winner William Byron wrecked on Lap 110 but following repairs was able to resume (finished 35th).

Kyle Busch’s drew the fourth starting position but because his No. 18 Toyota failed in the first two pre-race inspections, he was forced to start at the back of the 40-car pack. Due to an unscheduled late pit stop, Busch trailed off to finish 26th.

Only about 900 essential personnel were allowed onto the grounds, including drivers, team members, NASCAR officials including CEO Jim France, safety personnel, TV production people, media and others.

All competitors and team members had to pass a health screening before entering the track, abide by social distancing guidelines and wear a mask at all times at the track.

“Our drivers, race teams and officials have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get back to the race track and we want to assure you that we have taken the return to racing very seriously,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps wrote in a statement.

STAGE 1 WINNER: William Byron

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski

MORE: Race results, point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Seven drivers had never competed in a Cup race at Darlington, with Tyler Reddick (7th) and John Hunter Nemechek (9th) being the highest-finishing rookies.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: On the last lap of Stage 1, Jimmie Johnson appeared headed to the stage win. But Johnson failed to avoid the slowing car of Chris Buescher, bounced off and hit the inside retaining wall head-on, knocking the seven-time champ out of the race. That extends Johnson’s winless streak to 100 consecutive races, the longest of his NASCAR career. His last win was June 4, 2017 at Dover.

NOTABLE: In an unusual caution on Lap 155, track workers had to pull off a banner that had partially broken away from the racetrack’s outer wall and was flapping in the wind. Chunks of the sign got caught in Denny Hamlin’s grille and Tyler Reddick’s front fender until they became dislodged. … At this juncture, NASCAR expects to continue racing without fans through at least June 21.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Cup Series returns to Darlington Wednesday night and then on Sunday to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the sport’s longest event, the grueling Coca-Cola 600.

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Ryan Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

Ryan Newman
Roush Fenway Racing
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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

Atlanta Motor Speedway
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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.