Finally, a reason to cheer.
We’ll take it.
Even from afar.
No doubt, it was downright eerie when Fox came on the air Sunday afternoon for NASCAR’s return to racing, a camera hovering over tens of thousands of empty seats at the enormous, iconic speedway in the backwoods of Darlington, South Carolina.
This is the way it has to be until we get to a place — still difficult to see in the age of coronavirus — when it will again be safe to pack our stadiums and arenas and racetracks.
The broadcast team of Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon wasn’t even at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway. They were watching the network-televised restart of American sports from the haven of a Fox studio, about 100 miles up the road in Charlotte.
They were essentially like the rest of us, settling into our recliners, remote controls in hand.
“All other sports are watching NASCAR,” said Regan Smith, the lone Fox reporter who was actually at the track, sending dispatches from pit road with his face covered like a Wild West bandit. “They’ve all been in contact with NASCAR to see how they’re making it work.”
Then, the green flag waved.
And something strange happened.
Yep, it was just another day at the races. The incessant roar of the engines. The squeal of the tires. The crunch of medal when a car slammed into the wall.
If you’re a fan of the good ol’ boys, it was good ol’ fun.
There were plenty of boneheaded moves, like Ricky Stenhouse losing control of his machine on the very first lap.
After waiting 10 weeks for the season to resume, his day lasted less than a minute.
“Pretty embarrassing for myself, our team, our crew guys,” he said. “I feel awful for them. They put a lot of hard work into getting our cars ready.”
Jimmie Johnson had his own cringe-worthy moment. Looking like a rookie instead of a seven-time Cup champion, he plowed into the back of another car like a distracted driver, ending his day when he was on the verge of winning the first stage.
“Gosh, what I would do to get that corner back to do it over again,” Johnson moaned.
There was even a bit of unexpected drama at the Track Too Tough To Tame when a sponsorship sign attached to the outside wall was rubbed loose by Kyle Busch, shredding debris into the grill of Denny Hamlin’s car.
With his Toyota on the verge of overheating, Hamlin managed to slide in behind another car, a nifty bit of impromptu aerodynamics that caused the flapping piece of vinyl to rip loose, though a yellow flag was needed so workers could repair the wall.
Finally, in a rather anti-climatic finish, Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag with no one else in sight for the 50th Cup victory of his career.
“Great job! Great car!” Harvick screamed to his scaled-back crew over the radio. “Thank you guys. Awesome job! Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!”
Harvick celebrated with a customary spin of his tires at the start-finish line, smoking up the track before he climbed out out his No. 4 car.
It was a routine he’d done many times before.
Until Harvick realized it wasn’t routine at all.
“I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do,” Harvick told Smith. “I didn’t think it was gonna be that much different. Then we won the race and it’s dead silent out there. We miss the fans.”
This was a day when everyone should call themselves a stock car fan, even those who aren’t least bit interested in a bunch of noisy cars going round and round an egg-shaped oval for 400 miles.
These guys who like to go fast are setting the pace for everyone else in the U.S. to get back in the game.
For now, we’ll have to settle for these made-for-TV spectacles, put on solely by leagues and organizations that can made it work financially because of hefty broadcast fees, who can get by in the short term without generating a nickel off pricey tickets or overpriced concessions or ridiculous parking fees.
The PGA Tour is set to return next month (and gave us a preview Sunday with a charity skins game televised by NBC). IndyCar hopes to hold its first race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway in a few weeks. Major League Baseball is pushing a plan to get started on an abbreviated season around the Fourth of July. The NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer are sorting through various scenarios that would allow their safe return.
NASCAR is making its return at warp speed, with Sunday’s race the first of four Cup events to be held over 11 days at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Assuming they don’t have a wave of positive tests, this will undoubtedly be the template that others will look to follow in the days and weeks and months to come.
Hopefully, we’ll have more to cheer about.
Even if no one can hear us.
By PAUL NEWBERRY AP Sports Columnist
More AP NASCAR: https://apnews.com/NASCAR and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports