The Latest: Harvick wins NASCAR’s return race at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — The Latest on NASCAR’s return at Darlington Raceway (all times local):

7:22 p.m.

Kevin Harvick has won NASCAR’s return race, taking the checkered flag at Darlington Raceway 71 days after the series’ last event.

Harvick took the lead from Alex Bowman on a late restart and pulled away over the final 30 laps. Alex Bowman finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin. Harvick is the only drive to finish in the top 10 in each of the Cup Series’ five races this season.

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He made it look like a Sunday drive in what surely will go down as one of the strangest races in NASCAR history. Masks, social distancing, remote broadcasting and a fan-free speedway were among the most noticeable differences in NASCAR’s return.

NASCAR chose the oldest speedway on the Cup circuit as the safest place to restart its season after eight events were postponed amid the pandemic. NASCAR had been facing a financial collapse if races didn’t resume on national television.

Ryan Newman finished 15th in his first race since suffering a head injury in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Matt Kenseth, who came out of retirement to replace fired Kyle Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing, was 10th. The 48-year-old Kenseth raced in the Cup Series for the first time since the 2018 season finale. He was the oldest driver in the field.

This was the first of 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21. Darlington will host two more NASCAR races over the next three days.

The first race back was deemed The Real Heroes 400 and was dedicated to health care workers.

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7:05 p.m.

Ryan Newman spun and brought out the 10th caution the day at Darlington Raceway, essentially ending any chance he had of winning his first event since surviving a terrifying wreck in the season opener.

Newman lost control of his No. 6 Ford between Turns 3 and 4 because of an apparent tire issue and then spun around as he neared the first turn. He raced to pit road to get new tread, but lost about 10 spots in the field.

Newman looked solid for part of the race, even getting into the top 10 in the early going.

Just being back in the car was nothing short of a miracle considering Newman’s fiery crash in the Daytona 500 on February 17. Newman sustained a head injury and walked out of the hospital a few days after having to be cut out of his mangled car.

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6:45 p.m.

Two small grass fires broke out at Darlington Raceway behind Turns 1 and 2 during the final stage of the NASCAR Cup Series race.

Smoke rose above the advertising signs in the first corner of the iconic track.

Safety personnel quickly arrived and extinguished the flames. A fire truck came a short time later to douse the hot spots, leaving two dark areas in the otherwise green grass.

It wasn’t immediately unclear how the fires started.

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6:10 p.m.

Brad Keselowski has won the second stage of NASCAR’s race at Darlington Speedway, the sport’s first live event in 10 weeks.

It was Keselowski’s second stage win of the season. He led Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer to the checkered line as the stage ended.

Keselowski started on the pole after qualifying was set by a random draw.

The third and final stage will determine the race winner.

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5:50 p.m.

A caution has been called to remove a sticky sponsorship sign that came loose when Kyle Busch scraped the wall while riding the high line at Darlington Raceway.

After Busch rubbed the Blue-Emu sign, it started peeling off the outside wall. A portion of it stuck to Denny Hamlin’s grill and another attached to Tyler Reddick’s front fender.

It was a weird scene, even for NASCAR, and arguably as odd as racing without fans and with masks and social-distancing mandates.

Blue-Emu, you might recall, is the sponsor that fired Bubba Wallace for rage-quitting during an iRacing event in which the topical pain reliever was sponsoring the driver.

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5:15 p.m.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. calls his opening-lap crash “pretty embarrassing.”

Stenhouse crashed exiting the second turn on the first lap at Darlington Raceway. His crumpled car was spitting flames as he drove to the garage. He retired from the race without completing a lap. He finished last in the 40-car field.

“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. They put a lot of hard work into getting our cars ready.”

Stenhouse said he’s looking forward to trying again at Darlington on Wednesday night.

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5 p.m.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson wrecked while leading on the final lap of the first stage at Darlington Raceway.

Johnson had passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the lead with 10 laps remaining in the opening stage of NASCAR first race in 10 weeks. Johnson was trying to earn his first stage victory of the season — and only his third ever under this system.

“I felt like I was going to be able to exit the corner side by side with them and things just went horribly wrong there,” Johnson said. “I feel terrible for my team and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. We’ve got great race cars and things are coming in the right direction, but things just really didn’t turn out there on Turn 2.”

Johnson arrived at Darlington with just 13 laps led in the first four events of the year. He is scheduled to retire from full-time competition at the end of the season. Johnson crashed as he was trying to put Chris Buescher a lap down. It ended his day.

“I don’t want one single person to get down,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels. “We’ve got a great race car, so don’t you get down.”

William Byron won the opening stage.

Ryan Newman and Chase Elliott were called for speeding on pit road following Johnson’s accident.

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4:45 p.m

Ryan Newman is running in the top 10 in his first race back since a horrific crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Newman suffered a head injury as he skidded across the finish line in the season opener. His return comes exactly three months after the Feb. 17 accident.

Newman started 21st in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed exiting the second turn on the very first lap of the race. His crumpled car was shooting flames from the back as he drove to the garage. He retired from the race without completing a single lap. He finished last in the 40-car field.

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3:55 p.m.

NASCAR is back! The Real Heroes 400 is underway at Darlington Raceway, without fans and with masks and social-distancing mandates all around.

The new protocols should matter little to the 40 guys who took the green flag for the first live NASCAR race in 10 weeks.

Drivers, crews and officials wore face masks during pre-race ceremonies, which were performed remotely. The Fox Sports booth, featuring Mike Joy and four-time champion Jeff Gordon, also was being broadcast remotely from Charlotte, North Carolina. Driver Clint Bowyer wore a mask during a pre-race TV interview.

Here’s a quick primer of other things to know:

— Ryan Newman is returning after a suffering a head injury in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

— Matt Kenseth is out of retirement and driving for Chip Ganassi. He replaces Kyle Larson, who was fired in April for using a racial slur. The 48-year-old Kenseth is racing in the Cup Series for the first time since the 2018 season finale. He is the oldest driver in the field.

— NASCAR chose the oldest speedway on the Cup circuit as the safest place to restart its season after eight events were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. NASCAR had been facing a financial collapse if races didn’t resume on national television.

— This is the first of 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21. Darlington is hosting three events in four days.

— Roughly 900 people have been approved to be inside the gates, all considered essential.

— Teams are allowed 16 employees per car, including the driver and owner. Most owners gave up their spot because they are either over the age of 65 and at high risk for COVID-19 or their role at the track is not considered critical to competition. Several team members are helping remotely, offering a peek into how sophisticated NASCAR’s technology has become.

— The first race back is called The Real Heroes 400 and is dedicated to health care workers. Names of health care workers across the country have been substituted for the drivers’ name above car doors.

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3:30 p.m.

John Holland might have traveled the farthest to not watch a NASCAR race.

Holland flew in from Chicago to tailgate with friends from Darlington. The group was at a home directly across from the track. Holland said he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity came up. He says he’ll be back to watch the Southern 500 here in September.

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3 p.m.

Because only essential personnel are allowed to attend Sunday’s race, drivers were on their own to prepare for 400 miles of action.

They typically have a staff that manages their schedules, prepares their beverages for the race and other important details.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson posted a photo of all the things he had to do himself at Darlington.

“One of the perks of making it to the big time is showing up to the car with everything ready,” Johnson posted on Twitter. “Times R different right now & some of the responsibilities R mine again. Hopefully the drink bag won’t leak, visor doesn’t fall off, cool shirt is primed correctly & so on. #NascarIsBack”

Brad Keselowski, the 2012 champ, also took to Twitter to show his new normal, a pre-race lunch he had to make for himself. It included a few raviolis, two hard-boiled eggs and a roll. He asked if water boiled differently in South Carolina.

“Help me, guys. I’m lost,” Keselowski said. “Let’s go racing.”

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2:40 p.m.

Kyle Busch’s car failed inspection twice before Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway and the reigning Cup champion will drop to the back of the field at the start.

Busch is planning to run the first seven of NASCAR’s races resumed schedule over the next 11 days. His No. 18 Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing was originally slated to start fourth. Busch is winless in Cup through the first four events held before the season was suspended March 13.

His only victory of the season was a Truck Series race at Las Vegas the second week of the season.

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2:30 p.m.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster gave a brief welcome over video to NASCAR in a virtual version of the traditional pre-race driver meeting.

The meeting was streamed on NASCAR.com, and McMasters thanked the stock car series for coming to Darlington for its restart.

McMasters said he was disappointed not to be at the track but vowed to be at Darlington’s first race with fans.

“I love ‘The Lady in Black,’” McMasters said.

After a video saluting healthcare workers, the rules for Sunday’s race were laid out. NASCAR used graphics to present virtual explanations for the racing procedures and the images included simulated fans in the stands. There are no fans permitted to attend a NASCAR race through at least June 21.

At least one vehicle attempted to enter the property but was turned away at the only open gate outside the speedway.

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1 p.m.

Kevin Nobles wasn’t going to miss a race at Darlington Raceway. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t get near the track.

Nobles was part of a five-person group setting up a tailgate at an RV park outside the venue known as the the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

Nobles, 56, from Aynor and on his way to Myrtle Beach, says he wanted to be close enough “to hear the engines and smell the gas fumes.”

Nobles was excited that races were going live and believes it could be a big lift for fans following a 10-week hiatus amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

William Coats, another member of the group, said the fellowship they’ll share Sunday is important.

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12:45 p.m.

The first sign that Sunday’s race wasn’t a normal one for NASCAR was the lack of traffic on the four-lane highway outside of Darlington Raceway.

Traffic is always one of NASCAR’s biggest issues as thousands of fans descend on often rural areas not equipped for the overflow of cars. Participants then turned onto a gravel road guarded by four state trooper vehicles and entered a health screening area. NASCAR officials there checked names, administered a temperature check with a device pointed at the forehead and logged the reading on a chart.

Ryan Newman was in the car behind The Associated Press in the screening line. He leaned out his window for the temperature check and removed his hat so the thermometer could scan his forehead. Newman, wearing a camouflage face mask, was cleared to enter the track to prepare for his first race since he suffered a head injury on Feb. 16 in the season-opening Daytona 500.

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12:30 p.m.

Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp says he’s amazed at how quickly every part of NASCAR came together to bring back the sport.

NASCAR’s top Cup series returns to the track later Sunday after 10 weeks off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tharp was visiting the Raceway Grill outside Turn 2, where team owners were setting up for a watch party. He says the cooperation in NASCAR was essential in setting up three races over four days.

Xfinity drivers race Tuesday night, with Cup series racers going again at Darlington on Wednesday night.

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11:30 a.m.

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France is at Darlington Raceway and will remain outside the infield.

The 75-year-old France is considered high risk to contract the coronavirus. NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell posted audio on Twitter in which France grabs the public address microphone in the scoring tower and thanks “the entire industry for their efforts to get us back racing.”

Roughly 900 essential people have been approved to be inside the gates.

NASCAR is returning to racing following a 10-week layoff amid the global pandemic. The Real Heroes 400 begins at 3 p.m.

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11 a.m.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps is promising “the best race and racing experience possible every time we hit the racetrack.”

Phelps released a letter to NASCAR fans Sunday, hours before the racing series returns to the track for the first time in more than two months.

“Our drivers, race teams and officials have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get back to the race track and we want to assure you that we have taken the return to racing very seriously,” Phelps wrote.

NASCAR chose Darlington, the oldest speedway on the Cup circuit, as the safest place to restart the season after eight events were postponed and the series sat idle for 10 weeks amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

NASCAR was facing a financial collapse if live races didn’t resume on national television. So the sanctioning body had its health plan approved in South Carolina and North Carolina and released an aggressive schedule that included 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21.

The first event is called the “The Real Heroes 400” and is dedicated to health care workers fighting COVID-19. Health care workers will give the command to start the engines.

Darlington is hosting three events over four days. Roughly 900 essential people have been approved to be inside the gates.

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