The Latest: Harvick’s 50th Cup win ‘just weird’ without fans

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Checkered flags line a street outside Darlington Raceway Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Darlington, S.C. NASCAR, which has been idle since March 8 because of the coronavirus pandemic, makes its return with the Real Heroes 400 Nascar Cup Series auto race Sunday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — The Latest on NASCAR’s return at Darlington Raceway (all times local):

7:40 p.m.

Kevin Harvick screamed in celebration as he crossed the finish line and then performed a traditional, smokey burnout.

His 50th career Cup Series victory felt like a lot like the others — until he climbed out of his No. 4 Ford.

“Dead silence,” he said, looking at the empty stands. “It is weird just because there’s nobody up there.”

Harvick won NASCAR’s return race, taking the checkered flag at Darlington Raceway 71 days after the series’ last event.

Harvick took the lead from Alex Bowman on a late restart and pulled away over the final 30 laps. Bowman finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin. Harvick is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the Cup Series’ five races this season.

He made the series’ resumption look like a Sunday drive in what surely will go down as one of the strangest races in NASCAR history. Masks, social distancing, remote broadcasting and a fan-free speedway were among the most noticeable differences in the return.

Harvick emerged from his car in victory lane wearing a black face mask — what could become NASCAR’s new normal.

NASCAR chose the oldest speedway on the Cup circuit as the safest place to restart its season after eight events were postponed amid the pandemic. NASCAR had been facing a financial collapse if races didn’t resume on national television.

Ryan Newman finished 15th in his first race since suffering a head injury in a terrifying, last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Matt Kenseth, who came out of retirement to replace fired Kyle Larson at Chip Ganassi Racing, was 10th. The 48-year-old Kenseth raced in the Cup Series for the first time since the 2018 season finale. He was the oldest driver in the field.

This was the first of 20 races across seven Southern states between now and June 21. Darlington will host two more NASCAR races over the next three days.

The first race back was deemed The Real Heroes 400 and was dedicated to health care workers.

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7:05 p.m.

Ryan Newman spun and brought out the 10th caution the day at Darlington Raceway, essentially ending any chance he had of winning his first event since surviving a terrifying wreck in the season opener.

Newman lost control of his No. 6 Ford between Turns 3 and 4 because of an apparent tire issue and then spun around as he neared the first turn. He raced to pit road to get new tread, but lost about 10 spots in the field.

Newman looked solid for part of the race, even getting into the top 10 in the early going.

Just being back in the car was nothing short of a miracle considering Newman’s fiery crash in the Daytona 500 on February 17. Newman sustained a head injury and walked out of the hospital a few days after having to be cut out of his mangled car.

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6:45 p.m.

Two small grass fires broke out at Darlington Raceway behind Turns 1 and 2 during the final stage of the NASCAR Cup Series race.

Smoke rose above the advertising signs in the first corner of the iconic track.

Safety personnel quickly arrived and extinguished the flames. A fire truck came a short time later to douse the hot spots, leaving two dark areas in the otherwise green grass.

It wasn’t immediately unclear how the fires started.

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6:10 p.m.

Brad Keselowski has won the second stage of NASCAR’s race at Darlington Speedway, the sport’s first live event in 10 weeks.

It was Keselowski’s second stage win of the season. He led Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer to the checkered line as the stage ended.

Keselowski started on the pole after qualifying was set by a random draw.

The third and final stage will determine the race winner.

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5:50 p.m.

A caution has been called to remove a sticky sponsorship sign that came loose when Kyle Busch scraped the wall while riding the high line at Darlington Raceway.

After Busch rubbed the Blue-Emu sign, it started peeling off the outside wall. A portion of it stuck to Denny Hamlin’s grill and another attached to Tyler Reddick’s front fender.

It was a weird scene, even for NASCAR, and arguably as odd as racing without fans and with masks and social-distancing mandates.

Blue-Emu, you might recall, is the sponsor that fired Bubba Wallace for rage-quitting during an iRacing event in which the topical pain reliever was sponsoring the driver.

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5:15 p.m.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. calls his opening-lap crash “pretty embarrassing.”

Stenhouse crashed exiting the second turn on the first lap at Darlington Raceway. His crumpled car was spitting flames as he drove to the garage. He retired from the race without completing a lap. He finished last in the 40-car field.

“Not really sure a whole lot what to say there about our first lap, first corner,” he said. “Pretty embarrassing for myself, our team, our crew guys. I feel awful for them. They put a lot of hard work into getting our cars ready.”

Stenhouse said he’s looking forward to trying again at Darlington on Wednesday night.

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5 p.m.

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson wrecked while leading on the final lap of the first stage at Darlington Raceway.

Johnson had passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the lead with 10 laps remaining in the opening stage of NASCAR first race in 10 weeks. Johnson was trying to earn his first stage victory of the season — and only his third ever under this system.

“I felt like I was going to be able to exit the corner side by side with them and things just went horribly wrong there,” Johnson said. “I feel terrible for my team and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. We’ve got great race cars and things are coming in the right direction, but things just really didn’t turn out there on Turn 2.”

Johnson arrived at Darlington with just 13 laps led in the first four events of the year. He is scheduled to retire from full-time competition at the end of the season. Johnson crashed as he was trying to put Chris Buescher a lap down. It ended his day.

“I don’t want one single person to get down,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels. “We’ve got a great race car, so don’t you get down.”

William Byron won the opening stage.

Ryan Newman and Chase Elliott were called for speeding on pit road following Johnson’s accident.

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4:45 p.m

Ryan Newman is running in the top 10 in his first race back since a horrific crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Newman suffered a head injury as he skidded across the finish line in the season opener. His return comes exactly three months after the Feb. 17 accident.

Newman started 21st in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed exiting the second turn on the very first lap of the race. His crumpled car was shooting flames from the back as he drove to the garage. He retired from the race without completing a single lap. He finished last in the 40-car field.

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3:55 p.m.

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.

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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