You can’t be blamed if you saw Ricky Stenhouse’s crash on Lap 1 of Sunday’s race at Darlington and wondered if it would be a metaphor for NASCAR’s resumption.
The Cup Series’ first race in 10 weeks didn’t make it a full lap without a caution after Stenhouse’s car smashed into the inside wall two turns into the race. The lap was the first time Cup drivers had been on a (real) track in race conditions in more than two months.
With no practice and qualifying ahead of the race at the South Carolina oval, the last time any sort of official NASCAR lap was turned happened when Joey Logano took the checkered flag multiple time zones away.
And NASCAR, quite frankly, had no practice implementing what it had in place at Darlington on Sunday. Everyone in attendance was required to wear masks or a full-face helmet. Teams were asked to cluster themselves into subgroups whenever possible. Those with responsibilities on the areas outside of the track weren’t allowed to go into the infield.
It was a momentous undertaking. And one that didn’t have any immediate glaring signs of failure visible to anyone who wasn’t one of the roughly 900 people at the track.
“As far as the vibe in the garage area, I think everybody’s spirits were really, really high,” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “They all knew the effort that this took collectively to pull this off. This was not easy. But everybody came together in a real spirit of collaboration.”
It was impossible to watch Sunday’s race won by Kevin Harvick and see it as anything but an abnormal race. The track looked spookily empty in the infield and grandstands and with crew members and other on-site personnel constantly wearing masks, the unique circumstances were on full display. Heck, it was so unusual that it was jarring at first to see a bare-faced Harvick for a moment after he climbed from his car for a celebratory post-race interview in the middle of the frontstretch.
Don’t worry too much, Harvick wasn’t close to anyone. He was interviewed via a microphone on a long pole.
“Everybody’s excited about being back, but there’s still that awkwardness of not wanting to screw anything up,” Harvick said. “We didn’t really want to communicate closely or do anything that might look wrong. I think today’s message was really important to be able to make sure it was sent correctly.
“We all talked about it before we got in the car today, just about how excited we are to be back at the racetrack. Even if we’re just talking to each other on the radio, at least we’re at the racetrack performing and doing what we love to do.”
In the days and weeks after NASCAR announced its plan to get back racing in May, it made it clear how it would make significant changes to nearly every aspect of its race-weekend operations to get all three of its top series started up again. And, according to NASCAR, those changes were adopted rather easily.
The only minor hiccup visible to those watching at home came when NASCAR reinforced its social distancing mandate for its spotters throughout the empty grandstands after a camera angle from Fox made it look like spotters were clustered together in the same area of empty stands.
“There was no one instance that we saw of anyone not wearing a mask,” O’Donnell said. “I think there were two spotters standing next to each other out of the group. We asked them to move apart from each other, and they immediately went with that direction.”
It’s indelibly a good sign that the only craziness surrounding NASCAR’s return had to do with a banner being torn off a wall and causing a caution for debris and a grass fire just outside one of the turns of the track. But the verdict of NASCAR’s push to get back racing isn’t going to be known for quite some time.
Sunday’s race is the first of seven races in 11 days and the first of four Cup Series races in that span. It was also the first time that all 40 teams had been in the same space since that March 8 race at Phoenix.
While NASCAR asked teams to take as many precautions as possible to slow any potential spread of the coronavirus, the virus’ characteristics mean that social distancing, compartmentalization and thorough hygiene practices are a process that simply don’t produce immediate results.
And NASCAR is also not directly testing for the coronavirus. Anyone who entered the track on Sunday had their temperature scanned and was allowed to proceed if they didn’t have a fever. But unless they had recently gotten a coronavirus test through their team or another avenue, there was no way to reasonably know that everyone in attendance didn’t have the virus.
That is, of course, why NASCAR took the steps it did to have everyone wearing face coverings at all times. And why it will continue to do that for the foreseeable future until it starts to test participants with accurate rapid tests.
“The teams are all aware of what they need to do,” O’Donnell said. “Most if not all the teams have a road crew that is separate. Talked to [Hendrick Motorsports crew chief] Chad Knaus this morning. He has not been in his shop, hadn’t seen the car till they unloaded today.
“The drivers will be in the same boat: self‑isolate. Anyone will report any symptoms to us. Through the roster, we’ll be able to track that. Then we’ll also have another go‑round when we come into the track on Wednesday ... make sure everybody is racing in a safe environment.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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