Kevin Harvick didn't look the slightest bit rusty after a two-month hiatus from racing. Instead, on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, the Cup Series points leader sailed to his 50th career victory to continue a dominant 2020 campaign. He then exited his car for a quiet celebration.
"I didn't think it was going to be that much different and then it's dead silent out here," Harvick said during an interview on Fox TV right after the race, acknowledging the unusual pre- and post-race circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. "So we miss the fans."
NASCAR implemented a strict set of COVID-19 event protocols in order to run the race amid the pandemic. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said that he considered the race a success.
"Things actually went smoother than we expected," O'Donnell said. "Getting all the teams in and inspection went well. All-in-all, a really good day for the sport."
NASCAR officials are planning to meet on Monday to discuss the safety procedures, but O'Donnell said that NASCAR did not need to reprimand any of the roughly 900 individuals at the track for not wearing a mask as required. State health officials were also on-site to oversee the event, as they will be for upcoming races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, according to O'Donnell.
O'Donnell also said that he did not know whether anyone had tested positive for the virus while undergoing their pre-race health inspections, which included a questionnaire sent to individuals' mobile devices and a temperature check before entering the raceway, but that the doctor at check-in had "cleared everybody and was 100% confident we were in a good place to go racing."
While the COVID-19 testing procedures ran smoothly, the racing wasn't quite as flawless. There were 10 cautions called for 57 laps. Five drivers, including seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, did not finish the race. He crashed out while leading the final lap of the first stage. It was a tough blow for the No. 48 driver, who announced before the season that this would be his final year of full-time Cup racing.
"I felt like I was going to be able to exit the corner side-by-side with (Chris Buescher) and things just went horribly wrong there," Johnson said. "...It's just unfortunate that things really didn't turn out there off of Turn 2."
Johnson's teammate, Bowman, however, carried the torch for Team Hendrick. In addition to Brad Keselowski, who started on the pole and won the second stage, and Matt Kenseth, who finished in 10th place after a year-long retirement, Bowman had a highlight night. The No. 88 driver led 41 laps and added another top-three finish to his record after a win at Fontana earlier this year.
He said that momentum could carry into the next race at Darlington.
"I think definitely the teams that were good today are going to be good on Wednesday night," Bowman said. "The track is going to be a little different, probably a little more rubbered up. Hopefully the rain stays away. "
While the 1.366-mile raceway proved to be a tough track to re-acclimate to for some drivers, including another Hendrick driver William Byron, who won the first stage of the race before crashing out on Lap 95, others found success, including rookies Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek.
Reddick started in 29th place and raced his way into a seventh place finish, while Nemechek started 38th on a grid of 40 and finished behind Reddick in ninth, putting two rookies in the top 10.
However, it was the veteran Harvick who took the checkered flag for a milestone victory. The win put Harvick in the ranks of legendary NASCAR drivers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett, who have also achieved 50 Cup Series titles.
"I was up this morning at six o'clock pacing around my porch trying to decide when I was going to leave," Harvick said. "I was excited to get back in the car. Today was just a well-executed day."