Start your engines: NASCAR roars back during pandemic, resuming at Darlington

Cars approach the starting line in front of empty stands to start the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
JENNA FRYER
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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — 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.

Ready or not, NASCAR is back, but without fans, flyovers or commercialism. Darlington Raceway opened its 70-year-old gates so engines in the stock car series could roar again and the revenue flow would resume.

NASCAR's return started Sunday morning as teams began filing into Darlington at designated arrival times. A checkpoint at the gate allowed pre-approved personnel into the infield after a health screening. There is no exiting once inside NASCAR's designated footprint, all part of a meticulously planned health protocol.

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. Facing a financial collapse if live races didn't get going on national television, NASCAR had its health plan approved in South Carolina and North Carolina and released an aggressive revised schedule.

Sunday marks the first of 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21. All eyes will be on NASCAR and its protocols — representatives from IndyCar and the NFL's Carolina Panthers, among others — were expected to observe the screening process Sunday.

The first event is called the “The Real Heroes 400” and is dedicated to health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The names of health care workers across the country have been substituted for the drivers' name above the door on each of the 40 cars.

The health care workers will give the command to start the engines.

“These heroes will signal that NASCAR has returned, bringing back the intense competition and side-by-side racing we've all missed,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps wrote in a letter to fans released Sunday morning.

“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.”

Darlington is hosting three events over four days. Roughly 900 people have been approved to be inside the gates, and all are considered essential. Teams were allowed 16 employees per car, including the driver and owner. But most owners gave up their slot because they are either over the age of 65 and at high risk for the new coronavirus, or their role at the track is not considered critical to the competition or broadcast of the event.

Participants are not being screened for COVID-19 but will undergo temperature checks as they enter Darlington and throughout the day. Drivers must isolate until they are called to their cars, and everyone including crews must wear a face mask, including drivers at least until they get in their cars.

“While activity leading up to the race will feel different, the minute the green flag drops, our drivers and crews will be back to doing what they do best,” Phelps wrote. “We know this pandemic has impacted all of you and the communities in which you live. NASCAR has been, and will always be, about our passionate race fans and the community of racing to which we all belong.

“We look forward to the day we can return with fans at the track, but until such time our promise to you remains the same — to put forth the best race and racing experience possible every time we hit the race track.”

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