May 17 (Reuters) - Kevin Harvick and NASCAR both celebrated victories on Sunday as the stock car series returned to live racing from a two-month novel coronavirus forced hiatus at an empty Darlington Raceway.
While the day unfolded with none of the bells and whistles that have made NASCAR North America’s most popular motor sport, on the track the race delivered as promised with plenty of bumper-to-bumper racing.
Harvick, winner of the 2007 Daytona 500, produced a masterful drive to pull away after a late restart to cross 2.15 seconds clear of Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch to collect his 50th career Cup win.
The 44-year-old driver celebrated his victory in what has become typical NASCAR fashion with some tire burning donuts that would normally spark a massive roar of approval from the stands but in this race there was no one to witness the show.
Not even the growl from 40 V8 stock car engines could make up for the silence as drivers exited the track to muffled applause from pit crews and officials.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that much different and then we won the race and it is dead silent out here, so we miss the fans,” said a bewildered Harvick, standing alone on the track.
“It is weird just because there is nobody up there,” he added pointing towards the stands.
For U.S. sports fans the Real Heroes 400 was the highlight of a weekend that saw sport slowly come back to life after most events were shuttered mid-March by the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed over 88,000 American lives.
Following an Ultimate Fighting Championship card aired live from an empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday, sport starved fans had their choice on Sunday of a charity skins game featuring golf greats Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, Professional Bull Riding and NASCAR. (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Richard Pullin)