HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Kevin Harvick turned in another dominating run at Atlanta Motor Speedway, cruising to victory over Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the NASCAR Cup race Sunday.
Competing again in front of empty grandstands, Harvick won for the second time since NASCAR returned from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, adding to his emotional victory at Darlington in the first race back.
Harvick came into the day having led 1,138 laps on the 1.54-mile Atlanta trioval, far more than any other driver in the 40-car field.
This one was more of the same. Harvick now has three victories in Atlanta, following up his triumphs in 2001 and 2018.
“It’s one of my favorite tracks, for sure,” Harvick said. “I love to win here.”
On a reverse victory lap, Harvick held three fingers outside his car, a tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt.
Harvick was the driver who replaced Earnhardt after the seven-time champion was killed in a crash at Daytona in 2001. A few weeks later, Harvick captured his first Cup victory in Atlanta.
He now has 51 wins — breaking a tie with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for the 12th spot on the career list.
“To be able to celebrate how much Dale Earnhardt meant to me at a track where I got my first win because he wasn’t in the car was pretty special,” Harvick said.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, in what may have been his final Atlanta appearance, was given the honor of delivering the “start your engines” command to his fellow drivers. The speedway also renamed a towering grandstand in honor of Johnson, who is retiring as a full-time competitor at the end of the year.
A five-time winner on the 1.54-mile trioval, Johnson had another strong run in Atlanta. But his seventh-place showing extended a winless that stretches back more than three years.
NASCAR returned to Atlanta to make up a race that was initially scheduled for March 15. It became the first race to be postponed as U.S. sports largely shut down to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
This time, it was the spot where NASCAR acknowledged the social unrest in the country and vowed to do a better job of addressing racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Bubba Wallace, the only African American in the top-level series, donned a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Wallace finished 21st and appeared to faint after climbing from his car. He said he was OK and did a portion of a television interview, but then was wasn’t able to speak.
Wallace was taken by ambulance to the infield care center, where to be appeared to be sitting up as he was taken inside on a stretcher. His condition wasn’t immediately known.
The 40 cars pulled to a stop in front of the empty grandstands during the warm-up laps, shutting off their engines so NASCAR President Steve Phelps could deliver a message over their radio sets.
“Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country, and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”
All 40 crews stood on the wall in front of their pit boxes. One of Wallace’s crew member held up the T-shirt, which the driver removed before climbing into his car.
Wallace has been the sport’s most outspoken voice since Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police, sparking massive protests in all 50 states and around the world demanding an end to law enforcement brutality against people of color.
After Phelps spoke, the drivers observed a 30-second moment of silence. Then, as the cars refired their engines and slowly pulled away for the green flag, the Fox broadcast cut to a video made by a number of Cup drivers, including Wallace and Johnson.
Several drivers also posted the video on their Twitter accounts, vowing to “listen and learn” from the protests that have rocked the nation. The vowed to “no longer be silent” and pledged to “work together to make real change.”
With its roots in the South and one-time embrace of Confederate symbols, NASCAR has a checkered racial history. The organization has launched diversity programs but still struggles to shake its reputation as a largely white sport.
During the shutdown, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was fired after casually uttering a racial slur while competing in a video racing game.