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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Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.