Kevin Harvick grabbed the lead before the midway mark and led for more than 150 laps to win in NASCAR’s return to action, capturing the Real Heroes 400 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway at Darlington, S.C.
Harvick negotiated the 400 miles without many glitches in the unusual circumstances for his 50th career victory on the top circuit.
It was NASCAR’s first live competition race since March 8 at Phoenix, though contested without fans and with numerous precautions in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. Forty drivers began the race.
There was no practice or qualifying in advance of the 293-lap race, so drivers and their teams had plenty to figure out once the green flag was waved.
Alex Bowman, who just days earlier was given a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports through 2021, was the runner-up. Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Harvick responded after a slow pit stop cost him the front spot briefly before regaining control.
Sixth place went to Martin Truex Jr., followed by Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Kenseth.
Brad Keselowski, who was on the pole based on a random drawing, led for a stretch before fading and finishing 13th. He claimed Stage 2 for his second stage victory of the season.
Ryan Newman ended up 15th, competing for the first time since a scary wreck in the season-opening Daytona 500 in February. He suffered a head injury that day. Newman calls the Darlington track his favorite stop on the circuit.
Kenseth came out of retirement to replace Kyle Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event that was held while the regular season was suspended. Kenseth last appeared in a Cup race to end the 2018 season.
Jimmie Johnson was in line to capture the first stage, but he clipped Chris Buescher’s car on the last lap of the stage and slid out of control. That put him out of the race and he finished 38th.
William Byron won the stage, but he was derailed in a wreck on the 109th lap.
There was a caution on the first lap when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clipped a car and bounced off the inside barrier. Stenhouse didn’t return to the track.
Kyle Busch’s starting spot was moved to the rear of the field after twice failing a prerace inspection. He had been slated to begin fourth. Busch was involved in a strange situation when he caused an advertisement sticker to come loose, resulting in a caution as track officials removed the banner.
Another Cup race is set for Wednesday night, also in Darlington. Then the action switches for two races at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., giving the series four events across an 11-day period.