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GREGORY COLUMN: It's not the same, but at least the cars are back racing

GREGORY COLUMN: It's not the same, but at least the cars are back racing

Only $3 for 13 weeks

From navigating tight corners to exorcising engine gremlins, NASCAR drivers and mechanics are experts in problem solving.

Consider the troublesome scenario Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

Without the benefit of a single lap of practice or qualifying on an 85-degree day, teams were challenged by the toughest and most technical track in the sport.

Oh yeah, there was one other bit of pressure.

Following a 10-week stoppage due to a global pandemic, this 400-mile gauntlet was billed as perhaps the most important race in NASCAR history.

After months of home confinement, Americans were anxious to see if a live sporting event on such a grand scale was possible.

Thanks to a mix of ingenuity, cooperation and willpower, the NASCAR community pulled off a victory while operating under an intense microscope.

Wearing and working with a facemask in extreme heat is no fun, but Sunday’s star players adhered to the various safety measures before, during and after the three-hour and 30-minute event.

Given the high stakes and lack of preparation time, it would have been understandable for drivers and crew chiefs to settle for a cautious approach on the slick track.

With 10 lead changes, 10 cautions and a compelling late-race battle between Alex Bowman and eventual winner Kevin Harvick, there was much to watch. The flawless efforts of Harvick’s pit crew were especially impressive.

Since the track was closed to spectators, the Darlington experiment was definitely a made-for-TV showcase.

The most ardent NASCAR cheerleaders predicted that NASCAR’s return would generate record-breaking ratings and bring in many newcomers to motorsports.

While that bold prediction failed to materialize, there were 6.323 million viewers for a race dubbed as The Real Heroes 400. That’s the highest number for a non-Daytona Cup race since 2017.

More importantly, Sunday’s spectacle gave Americans a reason to gather for backyard cookouts and to hope for more live sporting events. Sports such as pro wrestling, bull riding, sprint car racing and Ultimate Fighting Championships have also returned over the past two weeks.

Given that COVID-19 symptoms take up to two weeks to surface, NASCAR will remain under scrutiny. And with 20 races scheduled until June 21, that scrutiny will increase.

The stamina of drivers and crew members will also be pushed to extremes.

On Tuesday, NASCAR released the at-track schedules for three Cup races including the May 31 event at Bristol Motor Speedway. There will be no practice or qualifying for any of those events, thus there will be no margin for error inside the car or on pit road.

For now, patience is the key word for the NASCAR family.

No spectators will be allowed for any races through June 21. Fans must settle for camping out in their living rooms while most media members will be forced to cover races from makeshift home offices.

The sights, sounds and smells of major league motorsports are missing, but at least the cars are back on the track.

And, as any NASCAR historian knows, the daredevils and masterminds of NASCAR will find ways to solve future problems.

agregory@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544

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“We understand there’s a lot of history there and tradition,” Virginia High athletic director Brad Harper said. “We certainly do not want to minimize that history. There are a lot of interwoven paths there from Virginia High playing games at the Stone Castle to being crosstown rivals. But our enrollment was certainly a lot different now than it was back in the 1980s.”

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