DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) – The Latest on NASCAR’s return at Darlington Raceway (all times local):
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.
Hereâ€™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 didnâ€™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 driversâ€™ name above car doors.
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 didnâ€™t hesitate when the opportunity came up. He says heâ€™ll be back to watch the Southern 500 here in September.
Because only essential personnel are allowed to attend Sundayâ€™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.
â€œOne 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 wonâ€™t leak, visor doesnâ€™t fall off, cool shirt is primed correctly & so on. #NascarIsBackâ€
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.
â€œHelp me, guys. I’m lost,â€ Keselowski said. â€œLet’s go racing.â€
Kyle Buschâ€™s car failed inspection twice before Sundayâ€™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 NASCARâ€™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.
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 Darlingtonâ€™s first race with fans.
â€œI love â€˜The Lady in Black,â€™â€ McMasters said.
After a video saluting healthcare workers, the rules for Sundayâ€™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.
Kevin Nobles wasnâ€™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 â€œToo Tough To Tame.â€
Nobles, 56, from Aynor and on his way to Myrtle Beach, says he wanted to be close enough â€œto hear the engines and smell the gas fumes.â€
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 theyâ€™ll share Sunday is important.
The first sign that Sunday’s race wasnâ€™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 NASCARâ€™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.
Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp says he’s amazed at how quickly every part of NASCAR came together to bring back the sport.
NASCARâ€™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.
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 â€œthe entire industry for their efforts to get us back racing.â€
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.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps is promising â€œthe best race and racing experience possible every time we hit the racetrack.â€
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.
â€œOur 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 didnâ€™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 â€œThe Real Heroes 400â€ 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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