Hamlin wins at Homestead

Jordan McPherson Miami Herald (TNS)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday in Homestead, Florida.

The 1,000 or so in the Homestead-Miami Speedway grandstands on Sunday for NASCAR's Dixie Vodka 400 were part of a monumental moment in American sports. The invited military personnel and first responders, their families, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara and at least one diehard NASCAR fan were among the first to watch a live professional sporting event as spectators since the coronavirus pandemic initially put sports at a standstill in mid-March and caused drastic changes to regular, day-to-day life.

They received a true South Florida summer welcome.

90-degree heat. Unpredictable (yet completely predictable) weather. A pre-race message from Pitbull ("God bless. Stay blessed. Dale"). A rainbow before rain actually touched the track. More than four hours of delays.

And though it all, eventually and in spurts, the 267-lap race they were invited to attend.

It ended with Denny Hamlin edging out Chase Elliott for the win in what became a two-driver race over a wild final 50 laps. Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick also made late pushes to finish third and fourth and within two-and-a-half seconds of Hamlin.

Hamlin, driving the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota, also won the first two stages of the race as the leader through 80 and 160 laps, respectively. He's the first driver in the Cup Series this year to sweep all three stages of a given race.

But it took a bit before the race could fully get underway.

The Dixie Vodka 400, the final of four races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, was originally scheduled for a 3:56 p.m. start, but mist on Turn 4 and lightning in the area resulted in a 55-minute delay.

When the green flag to start the race finally came at 4:51 p.m., it lasted five laps. More lightning. More delays, two hours and eight minutes worth. The 38 cars sat at the end of pit road, covers on, drivers out.

There was a tease midway through that delay with drivers re-firing their engines only for another bolt of lightning to strike within 10 miles of the track, which forced NASCAR to restart its 30-minute timer.

7:10 p.m.: The race is under a green flag again following the pace laps ahead of the restart. They made it to Lap 33. Lightning struck again. Another 38 minutes under a red caution and an hour overall before the race resumed to a sunset beyond Turn 1 with about 250 fans still at the track.

The race continued under the lights and into the night.

"It's going to get cooler as we go," Hamlin said before Stage 2 began. "We're going to try our best to keep up with it."

Hamlin had no problem adjusting, leading 138 laps throughout the race including the final 30 to claim his Cup Series-leading third victory of the season.

Weather delays and mid-race adjustments aside, Homestead-Miami Speedway followed a similar format to the past seven Cup Series races over the last month since NASCAR resumed its season in mid-May.

There was no practice. There was no qualifying session. Teams are limited to 16 crew members, including the driver, and are confined to specific work areas while on site. Everyone goes through a health screening before entering. Masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment are mandatory.

"Everything's so different right now that nothing feels normal," Kyle Busch said Saturday. "You come to the race track. It's very empty. It feels like you're here for a test session, a test race or something."

And then add on to it Homestead-Miami Speedway's relative dip in importance to NASCAR's overall season outlook.

This was the first time in 18 years that NASCAR's weekend at Homestead was not championship weekend. Homestead's races were moved to the early portion of the schedule - originally March 20-22 before COVID-19 altered those plans - and moved the championship races to Phoenix for 2020.

The passion is still there. The pressure for a win? Not as much in June compared to November.

"Being down here this time around with no championship on the line, it's certainly different," said Busch, the defending Cup Series champion. "It's kind of a little bittersweet that we're not racing with that opportunity right now, but overall I feel like it's just like any other race now."

But one step toward a normal racing environment did come Sunday, with 1,000 guests - mostly military personnel, first responders and their families - in the 46,000-capacity grandstands for the Dixie Vodka 400. It was the first time fans were at a live professional American sporting event since the initial postponement of sports three months ago. NASCAR ran its first month of races at empty speedways.

Up to 5,000 will be in the stands next week at Talladega Motor Speedway as NASCAR continues what it calls a "very methodical, very measured" approach to bringing fans back and serving as a possible template for other leagues to follow.

"It's awesome," seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson said. "Obviously, a thousand people in such a large venue will be hard to create the energy we typically have, but the way I look at it is it's an important first step for us to understand procedures and protocols to eventually fill the stands. So I'm excited that we are able to make that first step now and look forward to where it takes us in the future."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez addressed the sparse crowd prior to the race, thanking the military personnel and first responders for being in attendance.

"You're few, but you're mighty," Nunez said. "We appreciate what you do for us. We stand behind you. We not only honor those that served. We serve those that serve."

Homestead Mayor Steve Losner said fans being on site Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway serves "as a strong symbol of normalcy and resiliency, not only for Homestead but the State of Florida and our great nation," no different than when the racetrack opened in 1995 to help the city recover following Hurricane Andrew.

One of those fans in the grandstands was John DeStafano, who needed a little bit of luck to get inside the racetrack.

DeStefano, who on Saturday traveled to Homestead from Estero like he has each of the last six years, found a patch of grass on the side of the road at the corner of Southwest 336th Street and Southeast 38th Avenue and parked his Infiniti QX56 full-size SUV. He had a television, outfitted with Apple TV and connected to an amplifier, to watch the races. DeStefano hooked up an industrial fan to a generator to battle the Florida heat and unloaded a small tailgating grill to cook up some quick meals. An American flag, NASCAR flag and Homestead-Miami Speedway flag all flew high above one-man party. He set up a couple chairs and settled in to watch, on his TV, the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race happening maybe half a mile away.

"It's the spontaneity of the race. You never know what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, where it's going to happen," DeStefano said, "so I just put myself out there, see what happens. Sometimes something happens."

On Saturday, something happened.

DeStefano had purchased a ticket for the Dixie Vodka 400. He got his refund once NASCAR offered it, but he brought his ticket with him anyway, just in case somehow he would get to be one of those few fans to watch the race from bleachers.

As he watched the Truck Series race Saturday, a pair of undercover police officers pulled up to his tailgate. "You've got tickets for the race?" one asked him.

"Well, I've got a ticket," DeStefano responded, "but I can't get in."

The officer reached up toward his sun visor and pulled out a ticket. On Sunday, it got DeStefano into the speedway to watch the Cup Series race. He sent his wife a photo of his prize and she wasn't surprised.

"Everybody else thought I was going to get a ticket," DeStefano said, "except me."

Everyone entering the racetrack had their temperature checked upon arrival. Face masks were a requirement. There was signage placed throughout the facility, including one-way directional arrows on the stairs between the grandstand bleachers. Fans were distanced within the grandstands, most staying in the seven sections closest to the start/finish line but sitting either multiple rows apart or at opposite ends of rows.

Tabletops, bathrooms and other high-touch services were regularly disinfected. Most doorknobs were covered with NanoSeptic self-cleaning surfaces.

Access to the infield was prohibited, among other restrictions.

"The race day experience will be different. It's just different times," said Daryl Wolfe, NASCAR executive vice president and chief operations and sales officer. "Fans will have to adjust to that. We will have to adjust on how we're addressing these issues for fans. We think we have a very, very good plan in place, very detailed plan. Make no mistakes, I'm sure there will be some key learnings coming out of Homestead that we will reapply and adjust for Talladega."

And even during the weather delays, when the spectators who stayed had to leave the gradnstands and seek cover, a reminder rotated on a screen above the infield leaderboard: "Continue to maintain social distancing during sheltering."