Kevin Harvick Wins Darlington NASCAR Cup Race as Live Major Sports Return

Real auto racing on a real track returned to American TV on Sunday while the rest of the sports world remains in virtual reality. More than two months after the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) brought the sports world to a screeching halt, NASCAR became the first major American sport to return, although it was done with empty stands.

The Real Heroes 400 took place on a sunny Sunday at Darlington Raceway with 40 drivers, and Kevin Harvick won NASCAR's first race since March 8. Harvick built nearly a two-second lead over Alex Bowman with 20 laps remaining in the race, and extended it to nearly three seconds with 14 laps to go.

Harvick, who led 159 laps Sunday, then cruised to his 50th Cup Series race. He's also the only driver to finish in the top 10 of all five NASCAR Cup Series races in 2020.

Ryan Newman, who made his return since that fiery crash at the Daytona 500 to start the season, finished 15th.

Here are the top 10 finishers in The Real Heroes 400, which was named after The Real Heroes Project, a group of 14 sports leagues (including NASCAR) to support first responders in the fight against COVID-19.

  1. Kevin Harvick
  2. Alex Bowman
  3. Kurt Busch
  4. Chase Elliot
  5. Denny Hamlin
  6. Martin Truex Jr.
  7. Tyler Reddick
  8. Erik Jones
  9. John Hunter Nemechek
  10. Matt Kenseth

There were 10 lead changes among six drivers on Sunday's race that had 10 cautions.

NASCAR Race at Darlington
Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 ChevyGoods.com NOCO Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light YOURFACEHERE Ford, lead during the NASCAR Cup Series The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, South Carolina. NASCAR resumes the season after the nationwide lockdown due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19). Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Drivers went into caution on the first lap of the day after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rammed his No. 47 Chevrolet into the wall, sending him to pit row and a last-place finish.

Brad Keselowski led all laps from his pole position until lap 30, when drivers went into a competition caution. The drivers were allowed to resume their race position once back on the track.

Keselowski maintained his lead until Alex Bowman passed him on Lap 45, and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson also passed Keselowski to take over the second spot.

Johnson took the lead on Lap 82 and held it for nearly eight laps before he lightly tapped another car and spun out while approaching the green checker flag for a Stage 1 win, which went to William Byron.

The wreck knocked Johnson out of the race, giving him a 38th-place finish.

CRASH for Jimmie Johnson on the last lap of Stage 1. He was leading. Wow.#NASCARIsBack pic.twitter.com/EJcr5isIL5

— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 17, 2020

Keselowski worked his way back to the front of the pack to win the second stage of the race, setting the tone for the final 110 laps of the race.

Since NASCAR postponed its season on March 13, some of the drivers have participated in mock races by driving simulators from their homes. Those races took place virtually at computerized versions of real race tracks. But Sunday in Darlington, the revved engines, the pit stops and the wrecks were all real.

We ❤️ these sounds.

🔊 | @NASCARONFOX pic.twitter.com/Pa7Q9tM3ap

— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 17, 2020

The only thing missing was a live audience. Even the invocation was done remotely.

Country singer Darius Rucker, a South Carolinian who used to be the front man for Hootie and the Blowfish, sang the national anthem remotely as drivers and crew members stood on the track, right hands covering their hearts and protective masks covering their face—social distancing in the process. There was no audience applause and no flyovers.

And instead of a celebrity shouting "Gentlemen, start your engines," it was delivered through a series of videos made by doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen and various other first responders on the front lines battling the coronavirus.

Each driver also had the name of a doctor or nurse on their race car.

Announcers Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon were separated from each other—at a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina—calling the race remotely.

The next NASCAR Cup Series race will resume Wednesday night with the Toyota 500, also at Darlington. That race will be at 7:30 p.m. ET, televised on FS1.

The Series will then move to Charlotte on Sunday, May 24, for the traditional Memorial Day Weekend running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Here is the full schedule of Cup Series races for the remainder of 2020.