DARLINGTON, S.C. (WMBF) - Racing returns to Darlington on Sunday for the first NASCAR Cup Series race in nearly two months after it was put to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This race will definitely be unlike anything these drivers have experienced in their professional racing careers.
No practice laps, no qualifying and no fans.
For most drivers, this weekend will be the first time they’ve gotten back inside a racecar since the coronavirus put their season on hold back in March.
WMBF News had the chance to speak virtually with NASCAR Driver Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney and last seasons Southern 500 winner Erik Jones about their preparations for this upcoming race.
“Darlington is not an easy race track especially when it’s green, it’s dusty, dirty and sandy around that area,” said Jones.
Being the first race back on the track with these new restrictions and health procedures, they said they’re not really sure what to expect, but feel confident in NASCAR’s vision to keep drivers and their racing teams healthy and safe during this uncertain time.
“It’s exciting that we have our chance to go out there and just compete, whether it’s on a big stage or not, you have to block out all that pressure and I’m looking forward to grabbing the first checkered flag in two months,” said Busch.
The 2014 Cup Series Champion Kevin Harvick said even with nearly 30 years of this racing experience, this race will definitely be something unique.
“This is just so drastically different that you have to approach it drastically different with an open mind,” said Harvick.
Before the race was even announced, Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said NASCAR was working very closely with health experts to come up with a plan to protect their drivers and race teams from the coronavirus.
First, race teams have been restricted to 16 crew members, including the driver to help limit contact with large groups.
Crew members and racers will also take part in a health screening prior to entering the racetrack.
The health screening includes multiple temperature checks before the race, but no COVID-19 testing.
Each race team will be designated to their garage space and confined to assigned work areas spread throughout the infield to limit contact with other pit crews and drivers.
And don’t be surprised to see everyone inside the race track wearing protective masks and gloves.
NASCAR driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, Ryan Blaney, said he’ll be socially distancing in his camper before the race starts and when it ends and has confidence in NASCAR‘s health procedures.
“I’m not concerned. I think we’re gonna try the best we can to make sure nothing spreads like that and I don’t think the back-and-forth should be an issue because people will be pretty separated in their cars and personal vehicles," Blaney said.
NASCAR drivers aren’t the only ones preparing for major race day changes on Sunday at Darlington.
Hendrick Motorsports Crew Chief Chad Knaus is getting his race team ready for the “Lady in Black”.
Knaus said he saw his pit crew for the first time in weeks on Thursday but has kept up with everyone at Hendrick Motorsports over video chats and text messages.
Not really your typical preparation three days before a race at one of the toughest tracks to compete at.
Knaus said he hasn’t even seen the No. 24 race car yet, as his team continues to practice social distancing and limiting their interactions with each other which is all part of NASCAR’s new health procedures.
Knaus will also get no time to see how the race car reacts to the “Track too Tough to Tame” before the green flag is waved as practice laps and race qualifying has been eliminated for the time being.
Knaus said a lot of what they’ll be using to prepare for the first race back as a team in nearly two months will be previous experience at Darlington and strategies that worked at last year’s Southern 500.
“It’s not easy man, we obviously use last year as a baseline which was a solid race for us at Darlington,” said Knaus.
WMBF News will have all your race coverage on Sunday. We’ll be live out at Darlington Raceway all day Sunday getting you ready for the race and bring you the final results and reaction from the drivers later that night.