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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