DARLINGTON, S.C. — When Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag during NASCAR’s return to racing at Darlington Raceway in mid-May, he was “struck” by the silence when he climbed out of his Ford in victory lane.
That day, there were no fans in the stands due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, for the first seven of Harvick’s NASCAR Cup Series wins this season, he had no cheers to bask in at the end of those races.
But Sunday night at the end of the 71st Cook Out Southern 500, Harvick got to complete the celebration he wanted to do four months earlier — this time to the applause and screams of fans in the grandstands.
Harvick won NASCAR’s most-grueling race for a second time, stealing the laurels inside of 15 laps to go when Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. crashed while racing for the top spot.
After crossing under the checkered flag, Harvick performed a smoky burnout on the frontstretch, then gifted the flag to a young fan at the fence before soaking in the cheers he’d waited so many days to be able to hear again.
“That was way better,” said Harvick of the experience of celebrating Sunday night’s win compared to his May win at Darlington. “To get out of that race car and have all that emotion and finally have somebody to share it with and get a reaction that goes along with your excitement from the fans, and to have that enthusiasm that goes hand in hand with the things that you say, and the things that you do, and the reactions that you get … it just felt really good. That’s the first race that I’ve won this year where anybody has been here.
“But I think back to the first race here, and for me that was really the moment that put it all into perspective of where we were and what we were doing and how drastic of a situation it was, when you have all that enthusiasm to share and there’s nobody there, it’s just dead silence,” Harvick added. “It felt really, really good to have some cheering fans in the grandstands and to be able to experience that again.”
Asked by SPEED SPORT if having fans back at the race track was a motivating factor in chasing Sunday’s victory, Harvick said it didn’t push him any harder, but the end result was far more satisfying.
“That’s probably not the answer you want to hear, but I think as you look at the race itself and the start of the playoffs and everything that was starting here, that was pretty motivating in and of itself,” Harvick noted. “I can tell you that it was very rewarding, though, to get out of the car and be able to share that emotion and that excitement with the fans and to see them back in the grandstands.
“It just changes the whole atmosphere when the fans are here,” he continued. “I was excited to see everybody in the grandstands and definitely fed off that enthusiasm and excitement.”
Harvick also took stock of the strides that NASCAR has made since returning to racing in May and how far the sport has come in four months’ time, being able to have spectators return to the race track during a time when many other sports haven’t reached that threshold yet.
“I think back in May, I probably thought that we would get to this point again, but as we went through so many different situations of things happening, and you see all the things in the world that are happening and just the way that so many things were changing so rapidly … we got those last five or six races announced and you didn’t really know if you were actually going to get to go to some of these race tracks.
“Then we saw Watkins Glen pulled and then we went to Daytona, and I think it says a lot about the plan that we actually had and how NASCAR has done a great job of navigating everything and having backup plans that we’ve gotten caught up, moved forward and had some fans back again.
“I don’t think it’s over yet; I think there’s still some things to navigate, it sounds like, as we go forward, but you just kind of roll with the punches,” he added. “Honestly, I just quit paying attention because it’ll wear you out quickly. But everybody has done a great job to get us back on schedule and had a great plan, and it’s pretty unbelievable to see where we are today.”
To cap off the night, Harvick had a smile when he was reminded of the young fan who left with his checkered flag, noting “that’s what it’s all about” when it comes to the entertainment aspect of the sport.
“It’s about making sure that people have a great time,” he said. “Knowing that we’re back with fans at the race track is a big deal and to see those kids back in the grandstands is a lot of fun.”
The next scheduled NASCAR Cup Series event that will feature fan attendance is the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, the final race of the first round of the playoffs.