DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kevin Harvick set the gold standard in more than one way with his NASCAR Cup Series victory in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway.
Not only did Harvick dominate the proceedings at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval by leading 159 of 293 laps, he earned his 50th career win at NASCAR’s premier level, becoming the 14th driver in history to reach that prestigious threshold.
The fifth race of the NASCAR Cup Series season was the first event for the league since March 7 due to the global sports stoppage brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but from the start of the second stage on, it was clear that the day belonged to Harvick and the No. 4 Busch Light Ford Mustang.
Harvick took the lead for the first time at lap 94 thanks to quick pit work from his crew during the first stage break, and from there he largely controlled the proceedings for the rest of the way.
The Bakersfield, Calif., veteran led 159 of the final 200 laps and took the checkered flag 2.154 seconds clear of runner-up Alex Bowman.
Once Harvick retook the lead from Brad Keselowski – again on pit road – on lap 216 during the ninth of 10 caution flags in the event, he never looked back and paced the final 78 circuits virtually unchallenged.
The only nervous moment for Harvick came on the final restart of the day with 34 to go, when Bowman fought tooth-and-nail for two straight laps before Harvick finally cleared the No. 88 exiting turn four.
After that, it was smooth sailing for Harvick, who bypassed his car owner Tony Stewart on the all-time win list and drew level with NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson in the process.
A smoky burnout on the frontstretch gave way to an eerily-silent scene as Harvick climbed from his car, something he immediately noted during his winner’s interview on the FOX telecast.
“I want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do. I didn’t think it was going to be that much different, and then we won the race and it’s dead silent out here,” Harvick said. “We miss the fans. I feed off that energy and they’re such a big part of why we’re able to do what we do. I’ve just got to thank everybody from Busch Light, Hunt Brothers Pizza, Mobil 1, Jimmy John’s and everybody from Ford who helps on this car. It’s a pretty big honor to win 50 races in this deal and I just have to thank all my team guys and everybody for what they’re doing.
“I need to say hi to (wife) DeLana and my kids at home, and I guess we’ll bring home the trophy.”
Sunday afternoon marked Harvick’s 27th win since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, as well as his second in Cup Series competition at Darlington. Since 2013, he’s finished no worse than ninth at the famed facility.
Bowman held off Kurt Busch down the stretch, with Chase Elliott crossing just behind Busch to give Hendrick Motorsports two of the top-four finishing positions. Denny Hamlin completed the top five.
Martin Truex Jr. came back from damage sustained during an early incident to finish sixth, ahead of Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Kenseth.
Keselowski, who started from the pole after a random drawing held earlier in the week, faded late in the race and finished a disappointing 13th.
While the much-anticipated event was largely clean down the home stretch, it came with plenty of drama early, starting with an opening-lap crash that eliminated Ricky Stenhouse Jr. after Stenhouse and Quin Houff came together exiting turn two.
That incident was followed by a shocking incident on the final lap of the first stage, where Jimmie Johnson tagged the back of Chris Buescher’s car and spun into the inside wall in nearly the same spot on the track as Stenhouse’s crash took place.
Johnson, who was leading the race at the time of his issue, was credited with 38th in the final rundown.
Sunday’s race saw drivers and crew members wear masks virtually at all times, with safe social distancing observed throughout the facility during the course of the event.
For pre- and post-race television interviews, a six-foot boom microphone was utilized.
The NASCAR Cup Series season continues May 20 with a Wednesday-night primetime event at Darlington on FOX Sports 1. The Toyota 500 will be the sixth race contested this year.
To view complete race results, advance to the next page.