It was a strange, partial return. It was a bow to normalcy – we can’t quite shake hands with it yet. There was no qualifying, no practice. No stands teeming with fans nor an infield turned into a campground. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was doing interviews on his two-hour commute from home to the track Sunday morning like he was an accountant going into the office. Crew sizes were reduced. Drivers, crews and officials wore face masks during pre-race ceremonies, which were performed somewhere else.
Thirty-time winner and 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski posted a pre-race video of him all by himself in his team bus, trying to scrape together a snack, coming up with a sad collection of a few raviolis, a couple of hard boiled eggs and a piece of bread.
But it all still yielded a result. Something happened Sunday that counted in some standings and will figure in the future. Hallelujah.
Georgia's Chase Elliott describes the atmosphere at NASCAR's first race since shutting down the for the coronavirus pandemic - The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 17, 2020 in Darlington, S.C.
Covering the first sport back also was different. Only a select four media members were allowed inside the track (the AJC could not get a credential). I was left to report on The Real Heroes 400 from 300 miles away, semi-reclined on a couch, relying upon pool reports and Zoom news conferences for information. I had to feed myself, so I know the race-day disorientation that Keselowski must have felt. Meanwhile, my two-month streak of days without wearing a shirt with buttons continues.
NASCAR was doing all it could to keep all parties safe and as far away from each other as possible. Being the first back came with considerable pressure to prove that competition and the coronavirus could co-exist. If they failed, it could be a very quiet summer.
The most pressing results of this race – did anyone get sick, if so, how many – won’t be known for a while yet.
If all goes well, if no outbreaks follow the great roar of this restart, Sunday will be the first of 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21. Darlington is hosting three events in four days – the next Cup race Wednesday night. The Atlanta race has been rescheduled for June 7. Never before has racing had such an exclusive stage. What it can do with it will be reason alone to watch now.
Presently, be thankful that we possess a new package of highlights. For those have been scarcer than Charmin.
Ricky Stenhouse threw out the first crash of the coronavirus-affected season, waiting all these weeks to get back on the track only to careen into an inside wall before Sunday’s first lap was done. “Not really sure a whole lot what to say there about our first lap, first corner,” he said. “Pretty embarrassing for myself, our team, our crew guys. I feel awful for them.”
We have new quotes of disappointment:
Johnson, for instance, after crashing just before he would have claimed a Stage 1 victory: “Gosh, what I would do to get that corner back to do it over again. 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 (Chris Buescher), things just went horribly wrong there.”
And new words of victory, on a day when even finishing third felt like a win:
“That pace Kevin Harvick had for the first 10 laps was tough to beat,” Kurt Busch said. “To dance with the Lady in Black (as Darlington is known), I’ll take a third-place finish. It was great to be out there and to race 200 mph and to feel G-forces again and to have a day I was out there working and being a part of a team.”
All of it music in a time of stone silence.
For NASCAR, getting back to racing may well have been a matter of survival. For the rest of us, Sunday was a matter of striking a note hope.