Long: A day unlike any other in NASCAR

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Drivers walked alone to their cars Sunday at Darlington Raceway. No team members with them. No family around them. No fans anywhere.

New procedures in an era of the coronavirus.

Drivers carried their helmet, water bottle and other supplies. They headed to their cars amid questions about NASCAR’s first race in 10 weeks, making it the first major U.S. professional sport to return during these times.

Would masks and social distancing be effective? What if someone showed symptoms? What if it was a driver?

“Up until probably about two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong,” Brad Keselowski said in a zoom call with media after finishing 13th in a race won by Kevin Harvick.

“What’s it going to be? Is someone going to be sick? Or is there going to be somebody boycotting outside the racetrack? But nobody did. Nothing bad happened. They pulled this thing off. It feels little bit like a Christmas miracle.”

Consider it Christmas all alone.

The track was empty except for about 900 essential personnel that included drivers, team members, series officials, safety personnel, TV personnel, media and others.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said everyone who went through the health screening passed and “our doctor at the check‑in … was 100% confident we were in a good place to go racing.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France was at the track but stayed out of the infield. Instead, he got on the track’s p.a. system before the race to thank the teams for their efforts to bring racing back.

Joey Logano carries his equipment to his car before Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Many were excited to be at the track again. Joey Logano said he was the first driver to arrive Sunday. After he passed his health screening, he went to his motorhome to isolate for a few hours before going to the car. When he unpacked his uniform — which normally would have been on the team’s hauler but is now the driver’s responsibility to limit contact with team members — Logano realized he had packed two left shoes.

Thankfully there was an extra pair in the hauler, but I thought that was funny,” he said.

After a few hours alone, the waiting finally ended and drivers emerged from their motorhomes or vehicles.

“About 10 minutes before we are supposed to be (by the cars), all of a sudden you see drivers popping out of their motorhomes carrying their helmets and walking to the grid,” Logano said. “That was funny. I have never seen anything like it.”

No one has.

Or heard anything like they did Sunday.

“Just very subdued, very quiet,” Denny Hamlin said. “That’s the biggest thing I noticed, it was just how quiet everything was.”

Erik Jones said it felt as if they were at a test.

“Then you get on pit road, and it feels more like a race,” he said, noting the pit crews in their stalls and cars on the grid. “You are just missing the fans. Unique, different. It was weird standing there for the anthem and it’s playing over the loudspeakers and then you hop in and go.”

After Darius Rucker sang the National Anthem, which was videotaped, a montage of healthcare workers came on TV screens and over the p.a system to give the command to start engines for the first time in 71 days.

“Man, that is a good sign,” Jimmie Johnson said to his team on the radio after he cranked his engine.

But the jitters remained for many.

No one knew what to expect when the green flag waved to begin the race. With no practice and no qualifying, drivers were making their first lap at speed on Lap 1. Seven of the 40 drivers competing Sunday had never run a lap at speed in a Cup car at Darlington.

“The feelings, the nerves, the anxiety, the excitement, knowing we were in uncharted territory,” Kurt Busch said about the start.

But nearly as soon as the green came out, the yellow flag waved. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with another car and crashed into the SAFER barrier on the inside wall along the backstretch. His race was over before completing a lap.

Drivers had a chance to catch their breath and then do it again.

Then, it became about racing. The lack of fans was noticeable in the background of TV shots. The color of the cars contrasted with the gray of many of the track’s empty seats.

As the race progressed, the focus remained on the track. Johnson wrecked on the final lap of Stage 1. Harvick and Alex Bowman showed they had the two best cars.

Bowman battled Harvick for two laps after a late restart but Harvick pulled away and went on to score his 50th career victory, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett on the all-time wins list.

A milestone victory, a first win this season, a fifth consecutive top-10 finish. All things to celebrate. Harvick screamed on the radio in celebration and did doughnuts at the start/finish line and then climbed to his car to silence.

“The weirdest part of the day for me was getting out of the car and not hearing anybody cheering,” Harvick said.

After his TV interview, he drove to Victory Lane for a muted celebration.

“There were two photographers there, no team guys,” Harvick said. “I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it.

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

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Xfinity playoff grid after Indianapolis

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Chase Briscoe‘s continued dominance of the Xfinity Series over the weekend on the Indianapolis road course ensured no additional drivers locked themselves into the 12-driver playoff field.

Through 13 races, Briscoe and four other drivers have qualified for the playoffs via race wins. Briscoe, who has five race wins, leads the field with 28 playoff points.

The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Riley Herbst (+19 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+6 points).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-6), Alex Labbe (-32), Jeremy Clements (-49) and Josh Williams (-57).

Cup Series playoff grid after Brickyard 400

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With Kevin Harvick‘s victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400, no additional drivers locked themselves into the Cup Series playoff field.

But there was some movement at the bottom of the playoff grid as drivers jockey to make the 16-car field.

After he missed the race due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Jimmie Johnson fell from 12th to 15th on the grid. He’s now 36 points above the cutline.

Matt DiBenedetto earned stage points in each stage before finishing 19th. He moved from 14th to 12th in the standings.

After earning stage points in both stages Sunday, Austin Dillon has cracked the top 16, moving up one spot. He has a six-point advantage over Erik Jones, who crashed out of Sunday’s race and had a 14-point advantage over Dillon entering the weekend.

With his ninth-place finish Sunday, Bubba Wallace is now within reach of the top 16. He sits at 19th, 42 points back from 16th.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Oval or road course? Cup drivers address future of Brickyard 400

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For 27 years, the Cup Series has competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with its annual Brickyard 400. All 27 of those races have been run exclusively on the track’s traditional 2.5-mile oval.

But following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the track’s 2.4-mile, 14-turn road course, an obvious question has been raised:

Should the Brickyard 400 remain on the oval, where passing is made difficult due to a combination of the rules package and the design of the track, or should moving it to the road course be considered?

“I would never vote for that,” Kevin Harvick declared last week before he won his third Brickyard 400 on Sunday. “I love everything about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For me it is all about the oval … racing on the traditional track because for me I am kind of old school and I think that the Cup cars belong and really started the Brickyard 400.

“That was kind of what it was always meant to be, that iconic one-off, just the Cup cars event. I think with the Xfinity cars and the trucks and (ARCA Menards) cars and all the things that used to race at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park), it was a great event. Hopefully the road course can kind of take that role that IRP used to have and be able to bring the Indy cars and NASCAR together to add to that event at the Speedway. For me personally, I would never vote for the Cup cars to not run on the oval.”

Harvick is joined in that camp by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Aric Almirola, who finished third in Sunday’s race for his first top five and top-10 finish at Indy.

“I hope that we never stop running the oval,” Almirola said. “I just think it’s one of these places that regardless if it puts on the greatest race or not, it’s historic. It’s just a special place. It’s hard to explain when you don’t grow up a racer and you don’t aspire to come to race at Indy.

“But for me, I grew up watching stock car racing and dirt sprint car racing. I grew up watching Thursday Night Thunder, seeing so many guys go from USAC racing and sprint car racing to racing at Indy. It’s something I’ve always kept up with, always dreamed about getting the opportunity to race here. I get that opportunity now.”

Matt Kenseth, who finished second Sunday in his 20th Brickyard 400, said the Cup Series “should be” on the oval. But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is open to the idea of Cup using the road course in some manner.

 “I think it’s one of those racetracks that we need to race at as long as we can,” Kenseth said of the oval. “It’s arguably the most famous speedway in the world, or one of them.

“To be able to race on the ovals with the Cup cars, which is the highest form of stock car racing here, we should be on the big track as well. I don’t think it would be bad to maybe test the road course and look into it, maybe do a second race on a road course, kind of like the IndyCars did this week.

“I really do think the Brickyard 400 has a lot of prestige. It’s not a southern race, but similar to the Southern 500, races like that. I think there’s a few of those races you sure would hate to see disappear.”

Crew chief describes ‘frightening’ scene on pit road at Indy

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Crew chief Todd Gordon said it was “frightening” to see rear tire changer Zach Price hit on pit road and then try to scoot away from cars during Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Price, who changes tires for Ryan Blaney’s team, was injured when he was struck by Brennan Poole’s car during a melee near the entrance of pit road early in the race.

Gordon, speaking Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, said indications are that Price’s injury was a “fracture someplace in the knee area.”

Price was treated and released from an Indianapolis hospital on Sunday night and traveled home with the team. Gordon said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Price was scheduled to see a doctor Monday.

“Just hope to get him back and get him back going again and healthy,” Gordon said.

Gordon described what he saw as cars made contact.

“A really frightening moment for me,” he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I was really terrorized when I saw (Price) drag himself back across the pit box arms only for a while there. As the situation kind of progressed and the medical staff was working with him, I could see in his face he was better off than I thought he was to start with.

“Fortunate that the guys got up and got at least in the air. The jackman (Graham Stoddard) got on top of the car. Just one of those terrible situations. I felt like those accidents happened mid-pit road. That’s why I picked way back there to be behind it.”

Said Justin Allgaier, who was involved in the accident on pit road that led to six cars eventually being eliminated:  “The No. 15 (Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got the gentleman on (Blaney’s pit crew) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into.”

Indianapolis’ pit road is the most narrow of all the tracks the Cup Series races. The two travel lanes are 24 feet wide. The pit stall for each team is 15 feet wide.