Harvick Leads NASCAR Back Into Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 18 2020

Kevin Harvick earned career victory No. 50 on Sunday at Darlington.

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kevin Harvick’s 50th career Cup victory at Darlington Raceway tied him with NASCAR Hall of Fame members Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 12th on the series win list, but his accomplishment won’t be remembered for its statistical value.

Instead, Sunday’s Real Life Heroes 400 at the 1.366-mile track will forever be known as the event that marked the end of major league sports’ hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans weren’t allowed at the event for the first time in NASCAR history. The stock car engines silenced for 10 weeks restarted before empty grandstands, all participants wore masks and social distancing was enforced. NASCAR developed a stringent protocol with the aid of health professionals and only once did two spotters have to be told they were standing too close.

“Everybody just did what they were supposed to do; most of the time that doesn’t happen,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “It’s impressive that everything went the way that it did. That’s the part that just blew me away today.” 

Harvick, who led 159 of the 293 laps including the final 78, described the day as awkward because no one wanted to “screw anything up.” However, perhaps the “weirdest part of the day” was not hearing the roar of the fans when he climbed from his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford after his victory burnouts. 

The grandstands stood empty on Sunday in Darlington. (Photos courtesy of NASCAR)

“This is not like anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Harvick, who was trying to determine when to leave for the track while pacing around his porch at 6 a.m. Sunday. “I can tell you it’s very similar to coming back after 9/11. That day we had a hundred thousand fans in the stands, now you have no fans.

“The practice and in-the-car part are something we can figure out. The not having any fans in the infield, for me that took some of the enthusiasm of the win away just because of the fact you weren’t able to celebrate with the crowd. For me, that was really awkward because I feed off of that stuff, enjoy those types of moments. For me, I didn’t really know what to say after the race because it’s such a unique situation that we’re in.”

For the 44-year-old driver victory lane also was awkward. There were only two photographers, no multiple photos with different hats, no team PR person, and no crew members.

“Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car,Harvick said after his first victory this year. “I was able to kind of give my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left victory lane, tell them great job.”

Even though Harvick didn’t get to share victory lane with his team, he described the event as an “organizational win because you have to have your car dialed in when you get here in order to win a race like this.”

Initially, Harvick’s Ford was constructed for Homestead, which was postponed due to the pandemic. However, it still had to be prepared for Darlington and Childers admitted he “wore out” SHR Competition Director Greg Zipadelli when the Kannapolis, N.C., shop reopened. Zipadelli wouldn’t allow the organization’s crew chiefs to come to the shop because he wanted them to stay healthy, so Childers could only visualize the activities. 

“It was 52 days I sat at home and didn’t go to the shop,” Childers said. “I kept telling him we weren’t going to get things done with how strict they were being on us, the shifts that we were working. We had my shop foreman and three guys in the shop working. I’m used to having 20 guys in the shop and we work 12 hours a day. He’s got three guys along with him and they’re only allowed to work six hours a day.”

Childers finally was permitted to visit the shop and eyeball the car for two hours the Wednesday before Sunday’s race. Only then did he feel better about the entry. 

“It’s been interesting to learn through this process what tools are out there,” Childers said. “Microsoft Teams, we’ve wore it out with all of our meetings with myself and my three engineers. We’re on it all the time, working together. Those guys work really hard on setups, figuring out what bump stops, what shocks … all those things that matter. We’ve wore the computer out on that stuff.”  

Practice and qualifying weren’t included in the return plan so that put the setup burden on the engineers and their simulations. However, when it came to the procedures NASCAR used Sunday, Childers didn’t believe the sanctioning body “could have done any better.”

“The only thing that’s ever going to be any better is to keep working on this virus and keep getting the United States more healthy and get our fans back in the stands one day, keep racing the way we are,” Childers said. 

(Editor’s note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 18 2020
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