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May 21, 2020 - 06:00
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NASCAR breaks the silence at Darlington

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    “Masked man” Kevin Harvick won NASCAR’s 2020 return at Darlington. [AP/BRYNN ANDERSON]

After more than two months on the sidelines, NASCAR cranked the engines again and began picking up the pieces on a revamped 2020 schedule.

After Sunday and Wednesday dates at good ol’ Darlington, it’s on to another familiar stock-car stomping ground — Charlotte — for a pair of races next week.

Let’s climb through the gear box and get up to speed ...

FIRST GEAR: Kevin Harvick emerged from NASCAR’s coronavirus shutdown the same way he went in — as one of the most competitive drivers on the track by winning the “Pandemic 400.”

The 44-year-old competitor is the only driver to score top-10 finishes in all five Cup Series races run to date. He was second to Joey Logano at Phoenix before the two-month break.

Harvick, who started sixth in the 40-car field, led twice for a race-high 159 laps in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. There was no practice or qualifying before the race.

“I really thought that it would definitely play into our hand just because our guys are so good at hitting the car off the truck for the most part,” Harvick said.

SECOND GEAR: On the other end of the welcome-back-to-racing spectrum was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who failed to complete the first of 293 laps at Darlington.

He crashed out in his No. 47 Chevrolet seconds after the race went green.

“Not really sure what to say there about our first lap, first corner,” he said. “It was pretty embarrassing for myself, our team.”

Jimmie Johnson, who wheels the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, was heading for a Stage 1 victory when his car spun and hit the wall on Lap 90. He had led nine laps.

“Gosh, what I would do to get that corner back to do it over again,” Johnson said after donning a face mask. “Coming to the end of the stage, I was just trying to make sure I got a good run off of Turn 2 . . . (then) things just went horribly wrong there.”

THIRD GEAR: Had there been no coronavirus outbreak and subsequent shutdown of racing, last weekend would have been the NASCAR All-Star Race and a prelude of sorts for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Instead, drivers raced at Darlington to jump-start the 2020 Cup Series season.

The 600, which first appeared on the NASCAR schedule in 1960, will be staged on its traditional date, minus fans in the stands.

Participants in Darlington’s first race said it was weird staging a race without people in the grandstands.

“When you look up in the stands, you certainly missed the fans, that vibe, the energy,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said. “Even the music that was playing in the garage area doesn't do it justice.”

FOURTH GEAR: NASCAR scheduled seven NASCAR national races (Cup, Xfinity, Truck) from May 17-27. Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup Series champion, will compete in all of those races in NASCAR’s compressed schedule.

The endurance run includes a Truck Series race at Charlotte on May 26.

Don’t forget this: There is a $100,000 bounty for any driver that beats Busch in that Truck race.

On Mad Dog Sports Radio, Busch did not sound too excited about the racing slate.

“I’m running all of those,” he said. “Every one of them that’s scheduled, I’m in. It’s going to be getting thrown to the wolves.”