Darlington gives glimpse of NASCAR’s return
Darlington race winner Kevin Harvick described his trip to Victory Lane on Sunday with a word that's probably never been previously used to describe the experience.
"Awkward," Harvick said.
"Usually, you get out of the car and the crowd is screaming and yelling. (Sunday) out of the car it was like, well, I don't really know what to do here," the 50-time Cup Series race winner said, adding that he did not know whether to put on a mask for his post-race interview with FOX NASCAR pit reporter, Regan Smith, who stood holding a microphone at a distance while wearing a mask of his own.
"Look, I've been around this deal for a long time," Harvick continued. "This is not like anything I've ever experienced."
Unlike this year's Daytona 500, in which President Donald Trump was in attendance to serve as the grand marshal, it was state health officials rather than Secret Service who patrolled the grounds to ensure event safety as NASCAR held its first race back amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
"I can tell you it's very similar to coming back after 9/11," Harvick said.
But there was still a key difference.
"That day had a hundred thousand fans in the stands. Now you have no fans," he said.
Despite the awkward and isolated moments for those at the track, as well as for those watching from home - moments that will continue at least through late-June as NASCAR runs its other upcoming events without fans - the sport's sanctioning body saw the event as a success. None of the roughly 900 individuals on-site were denied entry at the raceway screening area, and NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said that no one needed to be reprimanded for failing to wear a mask.
"I think the industry really came together and did a tremendous job to enable us to get to the race," O'Donnell said. "I think it just felt a little odd with the garage area because it was so scaled down in terms of personnel. All-in-all, I thought it went really, really well."
Media members and drivers expressed the same sentiment.
"I'm probably one of the first guys to criticize NASCAR on a lot of things and usually rightfully so," No. 2 driver Brad Keselowski said. "But in this case, they deserve a pretty big pat on the back."
Keselowski said he was "blown away" that NASCAR was able to pull it off.
"Up until probably two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong," Keselowski said. "Like, all right, what is it going to be? Is someone going to be sick? Is there going to be somebody boycotting outside the race track? Nobody did. Nothing bad happened. They pulled this thing off, and it feels a little like a Christmas miracle."
For that reason, Keselowski said, "I think NASCAR is going to come out OK. The sport will come out OK."
Broadcast viewership numbers also pointed in a positive direction. The Real Heroes 400 race at Darlington averaged 6.32 million viewers, according to FOX Sports. It was the most-watched competitive sports event on cable television since this year's Daytona 500, which reached more than 7 million viewers.
That's not a major surprise since NASCAR wasn't competing with other sports leagues that would traditionally be in season at this time, such as the NBA, NHL and MLB, and was likely able to capture some of that audience.
"A great day for sports in general," Hall of Fame driver and FOX NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon said. "People connect to sports and people connected to what was going on out there (Sunday)."
However, Darlington was the first race of many on NASCAR's remaining schedule, and the collective sigh of relief could be temporary, as only time will tell how successful the event truly was in terms of positive COVID-19 tests. NASCAR is scheduled to run eight more races over the next two weeks, beginning with an Xfinity Series race Tuesday night, followed by another Cup race at Darlington on Wednesday, and then the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday.
O'Donnell said he did not know how many individuals had tested positive for the virus before the first event at Darlington, but that the doctor at check-in had cleared everyone and was "100% confident" NASCAR could go racing.
O'Donnell also said that NASCAR officials were meeting on Monday to discuss operational tweaks for upcoming races. Meanwhile, teams are required to submit individual temperature checks in the 24 hours following the race. The results of those checks and updated procedures have not yet been released.
"I certainly wouldn't say (procedures) stay as is because you can always learn," O'Donnell said Sunday night. "We've got a meeting (Monday) to download on everything."
Although things went smoother than expected at Darlington, according to O'Donnell, the sport _ and entire country _ is nowhere near out of the woods yet when it comes to battling the virus that has claimed more than 89,000 lives in the United States and 661 lives in North Carolina.
As NASCAR tries its best to navigate the new normal and complete its season under "awkward" conditions, those watching from home can appreciate the return of live sports, although there is another A-word that comes to mind: