Kevin Harvick wins at Darlington in NASCAR's return to racing

After a 10-week hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, with no fans in the grandstands, Kevin Harvick turned in a dominating performance at Darlington Raceway, leading 159 of 293 laps and winning Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 by 2.154 seconds over runner-up Alex Bowman.

The victory wasn’t as easy as the numbers might suggest. Harvick had to hold off a determined charge from Bowman after the final restart on Lap 259 to record his 50th NASCAR Cup Series victory, breaking a tie with his car owner, Tony Stewart, and tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 12th all-time.

“I want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do,” Harvick said during a socially-distanced post-race interview with Regan Smith of Fox Sports. “ I didn’t think it was going to be that much different, and then we won the race, and it’s dead silent out here.

“We miss the fans… It’s a pretty big honor to win 50 races in this deal, and I’ve just got to thank all my team guys and everybody for what they’re doing.”

Kurt Busch ran third, followed by Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin. Martin Truex Jr., rookie Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, rookie John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Kenseth, who returned from retirement in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, completed the top 10.

Despite a late slide through Turns 3 and 4, Ryan Newman finished 15th in his first race since being sidelined by a head injury sustained during a vicious crash in the Daytona 500.

Although NASCAR’s return to racing had all the early earmarks of a return to Victory Lane for Jimmie Johnson, who entered the race mired in a 99-event winless streak. Just over a half-lap from a win in Stage 1, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet tangled with the No. 17 Ford of Chris Buescher, launching the seven-time champion’s Camaro nose-first into the inside backstretch wall.

Buescher, whose Mustang was the last car on the lead lap at the time, slowed slightly off Turn 2 as Johnson approached. A light tap from the nose of Johnson’s car sent the No. 17 bouncing off the outside wall, and the second contact between the two turned Johnson sideways and propelled him toward the inside SAFER barrier.

“Gosh, what I would do to get that corner back to do it over again,” said Johnson, who was eliminated from the race in 37th place. “Coming to the end of the stage, I was just trying to make sure I got a good run off of Turn 2. I felt like I was going to be able to exit the corner side-by-side with him.

“Things just went horribly wrong there. What a great car…I feel terrible for my team and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.”

Johnson wasn’t the only Hendrick Motorsports driver who couldn’t stand prosperity. William Byron inherited the stage win when Johnson crashed on Lap 90, but his No. 24 Chevrolet twitched toward the Turn 3 wall on Lap 109 because of a loose wheel.

Byron’s car tapped the wall, flattening the right rear tire and shredding the right rear quarter panel before spinning out of control and causing the fourth caution of the afternoon. Byron lost three laps under repairs and ceased to be a factor in the race.

If the wrecks of Johnson and Byron were sudden and unexpected, they couldn’t match the bizarre nature of the sixth caution, called for debris from adhesive banners placed on the outside wall where cars picking up the “Darlington stripe” were certain to hit them.

Sure enough, a section of banner knocked off the wall adhered to the nose of Hamlin’s Toyota, sending his temperatures skyward. Hamlin snuggled up behind the Ford of Clint Bowyer to loosen the debris, a section of which flew into the right-side front air duct on Reddick’s Chevy. NASCAR called a yellow to allow track workers to remove the troublesome signage.

Harvick, who led 81 straight laps in Stage 2, lost ground on pit road under caution for Christopher Bell’s spin off Turn 4 on Lap 173 and ceded the stage win to Brad Keselowski, who held off Bowman and Truex to earn the Playoff point.

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