NASCAR Darlington Auto Racing (copy)

Cars approach the starting line in front of empty stands to start NASCAR's The Real Heroes 400 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway. AP/Brynn Anderson

The green flag ceremony, for the first time in Darlington Raceway history, featured a lot of people and was done remotely. The race-start stars Sunday at The Real Heroes 400 were real heroes, front-line health care workers from all over the country.

Other nice socially-distant touches at America’s first major live sporting event in two months included Charleston’s Darius Rucker singing the national anthem.

Hilarious material: country music singer Blake Shelton joked in a tweet that the empty grandstands at a NASCAR Cup Series race without fans reminded him of a Luke Bryan concert.

But while Darlington, NASCAR and Fox put on a good 293-lap show ending with Kevin Harvick winning in a powder blue Ford Mustang, it mostly served as a bittersweet reminder to us sports fans.

About what we took for granted all our lives pre-coronavirus.

What we’ve been missing so much for two months.

What we want back as soon as infectious disease officials, mental health experts, economists, politicians and normal folks dealing with “new normal” life come to something resembling a consensus.

Remember going to a live sporting event?

The interaction with family and friends? Precious. It was so enjoyable, in retrospect, meeting interesting new people, even those wearing rival colors.

That pregame walk through tailgate food. Didn’t it always seem to smell like …


The Road Trip, just a few hours away or two nights in a hotel, was as much the adventure for the curious traveler as the game/race/round/match itself.

No one mined such memories from Darlington on Sunday, as Fox Drone Cam confirmed with flights over all the vacant parking lots.

‘Trophy on the line’

The TV presentation was typically slick but, like the fan areas, full of emptiness.

None of the crowd roars — or boos — we like with our live sports.

No homemade signs, looks of fan elation, looks of frustration (or band, cheerleaders or mascots).

Anyone who knows Darlington as “The Track Too Tough To Tame” knows any traditional Darlington race comes with as much of that human element as you’ll find at any sports venue in the country. The infield campground is Southern culture worth the price of admission.

Fox wasn’t getting those shots this time.

“At the end of the day there is still a trophy on the line,” said Regan Smith, who served as the Fox trackside reporter while Mike Joy and seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon called the race from a Charlotte studio.

Well, true.

And bravo for all the strong safety statements: prerace COVID 19 testing, smaller pit crews, masks everywhere.

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There were strict social distancing measures in the garage, where Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 car ended up after leading late in Stage 1.

The first commercial was a public service spot encouraging viewers to help “slow the spread.”

Maybe NASCAR is overdoing it; four Cup Series races over 11 days, including a Wednesday night race at Darlington (there’s also an Xfinity Series race at Darlington on Tuesday night). It projects as a physical, mental grind for drivers that hopefully isn’t dangerous.

Gordon talked about the “huge challenges” that came with no Darlington practice laps and a race 71 days removed from the last Cup Series event at Phoenix.

So a few glitches had to be expected. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecked on the very first lap. A Blue-Emu sidewall banner came apart midway through the race, causing a delay (and great publicity for Blue-Emu).

Braves, Jordan, Cosell

You can bet NASCAR execs and those from other sports are extra-interested in Darlington TV ratings.

Though it’s not like the other television networks agreed to a blackout to bow to Darlington coverage.

Counter-programming was aggressive:

• MLB Network: 1979 World Series Game 7, Pirates vs. Orioles, with Howard Cosell doing the color for ABC

• ESPN: A replay of Michael Jordan’s 1993 drama with the Chicago Bulls in the hit documentary “The Last Dance”

• ESPNU: The 2011 Boise State-Georgia football game

• BBC: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”

That’s standard coronavirus programming.

Harvick holding off Alex Bowman in real-time at Darlington, that was the kind of live competition we hadn’t seen since way before Easter.

Also a reminder of what was once slated for the TV sports grid of Sunday, May 17:

• NBA playoffs

• Stanley Cup playoffs

• The Atlanta Braves winding up a three-game series in San Francisco

• Lots of golf and tennis

• The World Series-favorite New York Yankees in Houston to face the disgraced Astros

That hurts more than running out of gas on the second-to-last lap in Darlington County.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.