One Month Back: Key moments from NASCAR’s return

Daniel McFadin
NBC Sports

It may be hard to believe, but NASCAR’s return to racing is now one month old.

On May 17, NASCAR became one of the first major sport leagues to come out of hibernation amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ending a 71-day hiatus.

Since then, 17 races have been held across NASCAR’s three national series: Eight Cupn races, six Xfinity and three Truck Series events.

Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from a whirlwind month.

‘Dead Silent’

It would become the norm quickly, but Kevin Harvick‘s frontstretch celebration after winning the May 17 race at Darlington Raceway was surreal.

He emerged from his No. 4 Ford to the sound of … nothing. As would be the case for the next 15 races before Sunday’s Cup visit to Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick was greeted by empty grandstands.

“We won the race and it’s dead silent out here,” Harvick said. “It is weird because there’s nobody up there (in the stands). … I’m speechless.”

Then, in another first, Harvick went to an empty Victory Lane to have his picture taken while wearing a mask.

Three days later, in the first Wednesday Cup race since 1984, Denny Hamlin won and wore a very unique mask: one with his own smiling face.

Birds and Bounties

Kyle Busch made a mistake. Chase Elliott wrecked.

The May 20 race at Darlington saw this happen late as Busch failed to clear Elliott on the frontstretch as they raced for second place.

Afterward, an upset Elliott displayed the middle digit on his right hand to Busch as he drove by the incident scene.

A new rivalry was born and it continued on May 26 in the Truck Series race at Charlotte. The first race back for the series was also the “Bounty Race” that was originally set to be run at Atlanta in March. Elliott, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole were attempting to beat Busch to claim a $100,000 prize posted by Harvick and Gander RV & Outdoors CEO Marcus Lemonis (which would be donated to charity).

Elliott won the race and the bounty and afterward performed Busch’s trademark bow on the frontsretch.

Briscoe’s Emotional Win

It was one of the more dramatic finishes in recent memory and easily the most emotional.

A day after revealing his wife had suffered a miscarriage, Chase Briscoe participated in the Xfinity Series race at Darlington on May 21.

The race ended in a duel between Briscoe and Busch, the all-time Xfinity wins leader. After making contact multiple time in the last two laps, Briscoe beat Busch to the checkered flag. 

“This is more than a race win, it’s the biggest day of my life after the toughest day of my life,” an overwhelmed Briscoe said afterward.

‘Childish’

Over an 11-day period Chase Elliott was either winning or losing in a controversial manner.

On May 31, the latter occurred at Bristol Motor Speedway. Elliott was racing Joey Logano for the lead with three laps to go when he drove deep into Turn 3. He wasn’t able to complete the pass and slid up into Logano, damaging both their cars. After finishing 21st and 22nd respectively, Logano was upset that Elliott was slow in apologizing on pit road and confronted Elliott himself.

“The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad,'” Logano said. “I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish.”

Logano hadn’t forgotten the Bristol incident when he raced Elliott hard late in Sunday’s race at Miami.

Finally an Oval Winner

After competing in 401 NASCAR races and 46 open-wheel races, one thing was missing from AJ Allmendinger‘s resume: a win on an oval track.

That drought ended in the June 6 Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Driving Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet, the road-course ace started 30th and led the final 37 laps to win over Noah Gragson.

“Oh my God, oh my God, I won on an oval. Do you like that? Whoo!” Allmendinger yelled after winning. A week later he claimed the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus at Miami.

Turn on the Lights

After years of hype and one postponement, the Cup Series finally held a night race at Martinsville Speedway.

The historic race was held June 10 without fans, as the sun set on empty grandstands and gave way to a dark sky.

While Joey Logano was the dominating force, leading 234 laps, and Jimmie Johnson earned a stage win, Martin Truex Jr. claimed the victory.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 132 laps and bounced back from a commitment line violation penalty on Lap 133 to earn his second straight win on NASCAR’s oldest track.

Messages Against Racism

While Kevin Harvick won the June 7 Cup race at Atlanta, that’s merely a historical footnote compared to what happened before the green flag dropped.

In the wake of two weeks of social unrest and protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd in police custody, NASCAR drivers issued a video condemning racial inequality and racism. Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver in the Cup Series, wore a Black Lives Matter shirt on pit road. A Black NASCAR official saluted the American flag from his knee during the national anthem.

On the final pace lap, the field was stopped near the start/finish line and NASCAR President Steve Phelps delivered a message, saying “Our sport must do better. Our country must do better” in addressing racism.

Over the next three days, Wallace called for the banning of Confederate flag at NASCAR tracks, NASCAR began permitting peaceful protests during the national anthem and on Wednesday announced its Confederate flag ban hours before the first night race at Martinsville Speedway.

The Martinsville race saw Wallace and his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet sporting a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme, which he drove to a 11th-place finish.

 

One Month Back: Key moments from NASCAR’s return originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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