For a few hours on Sunday, May 17, we got to focus on something other than social distancing, rates of infection and toilet paper shortages. Some stay-at-home orders may still be in place, but the NASCAR COVID-19 quarantine came to an end… and gave millions a break.
They got to watch a race.
After a two-month suspension of racing, NASCAR returned to live action at Darlington Raceway. The sport was among the first to return to live performances after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. With little else to watch on TV, some had compared Sunday’s race to the 1979 Daytona 500. We won’t know the Nielsen ratings for a couple of days, but this much is clear: it was NASCAR’s chance to capture the attention of the country with a classic race at one of the sport’s most storied venues.
Perhaps the day did not quite rise to those levels, but it did have a significance beyond the typical Cup Series event. Sunday’s race felt much like the 400-miler at Dover International Speedway in the autumn of 2001. That was first Cup Series race run after the terrorist attacks of September 11, won by one of the sport’s stars in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Only weeks after that national tragedy, something as fun, yet ordinary, as a stock car race helped the nation to heal.
Nearly 20 years later, NASCAR again delivered a healthy dose of stock car racing therapy.
Darlington proved to be the perfect choice for the NASCAR COVID-19 comeback race. The track was originally selected for practical purposes, close to the NASCAR hub of Charlotte but still in a rural area with relatively few COVID-19 cases. But Darlington is also one of the toughest tracks in NASCAR and it presented a significant challenge for the Cup Series teams.
In an attempt to limit time at the track, there was no qualifying or practice. The lack of on-track preparation meant Sunday’s race easily could have been a wreck fest. Lack of parity was also a major concern. There could have been one driver who led 90% of the laps and ran away from the field.
Instead, we got a very competitive race. No single driver dominated the event, and it was not impossible for drivers in dirty air to move through the field. Racing from the afternoon into the evening also kept crews on their toes, keeping up with changing track conditions.
In the end, Kevin Harvick did pull away late, building a healthy lead by the time the checkered flag flew and earned the 50th win of his Cup Series career. That’s a historic milestone to cap off a historically unusual race.
Darlington was a comeback race for everyone involved, but it was an especially meaningful comeback for two veteran drivers. Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth returned to Cup Series competition after several months on the sidelines. Newman’s appearance came as a sweet relief after the Indiana native suffered a terrifying crash at the end of February’s Daytona 500. After sailing into the catchfence and getting hit by another car, Newman was extracted from the No. 6 Ford and appeared to be seriously injured, if not worse. Yet, just a few days later, he was able to walk out of the hospital, holding the hands of his daughters. A 15th-place result on Sunday brought closure to a recovery few expected in the initial moments after the accident. Indeed, the last few months have been a testament to the toughness of NASCAR’s Rocketman.
Kenseth, meanwhile, had not competed in a NASCAR Cup Series race since November 2018. Nobody expected him to be racing in the sport anytime soon, if ever again. But when Chip Ganassi Racing needed a replacement for Kyle Larson, Kenseth answered the call. Like everyone else, he had no practice time before the race. He had also never competed with the No. 42 team or even run a competitive lap with the current aero package. But Kenseth ran a smart, patient race on Sunday and brought home a 10th-place finish. Given the circumstances and lack of prep time he had, a top 10 is an impressive achievement. Even at age 48, the veteran is proving he can still race with the best of them.
On the other end of the experience spectrum, Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek also earned top-10 finishes. Both rookies made their first Cup Series starts at Darlington and looked like old pros. Nemechek, driving for Front Row Motorsports, has until now been an afterthought in the Rookie of the Year battle. Most of his adversaries are driving in better-funded equipment.
Even Reddick, winner of the last two NASCAR Xfinity Series titles, has been a little lost in the shadows of Christopher Bell and Cole Custer. Yet while Bell and Custer had up-and-down races that ended in mid-pack finishes, Nemechek and Reddick thoroughly made the most of their Sunday afternoons. Both will be worth watching this Wednesday in a shorter Darlington night race.
In addition to the drivers, young and old, who had good finishes, Sunday was a good day for NASCAR as an organization. It took considerable coordination among the sanctioning body, the teams, the state governments of both Carolinas and local officials to make this race happen. No doubt everyone did their best to make sure that this event could go off safely. Yet in an environment where the United States, and indeed the world, is still trying to figure out how to contain COVID-19, running this race was a calculated risk. By being the first major American sport back in action, a NASCAR COVID-19 comeback opened itself up to extra scrutiny and potential criticism from those who deemed it too early to race. Dropping the green flag and resuming the season on Sunday took serious courage.
It still may take several weeks to fully learn if returning to live competition was the right call. But for a single Sunday afternoon, and one race, at least, everything felt relatively normal. Sports will not make this virus go away, and they will not solve the economic hardships that the United States is facing. Yet sports, like great art and great music, speak to the human soul.
If NASCAR can keep holding safe events that heal the souls of its fans in these difficult times, racing is a risk worth taking.