Regardless of delays, viewers watch Hamlin stay the Dixie Vodka 400 | from Homestead wins Corning Observer

The 1,000 or so in the stands at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday for NASCAR’s Dixie Vodka 400 were part of a monumental moment in American sport. The invited military personnel and first responders, their families, the New Orleans Saints, the Alvin Kamara ran back, and at least one die-hard NASCAR fan were among the first to watch a live professional sporting event as the coronavirus pandemic first hit the sport stalled in the middle of March and caused drastic changes in daily life.

You were warmly welcomed to South Florida this summer.

90 degrees heat. Unpredictable (yet completely predictable) weather. A pre-race message from Pitbull (“God bless. Be blessed. Dale”). A rainbow before the rain actually touched the track. More than four hours late.

And although everything, eventually and in spurts, the 267-lap race they were invited to.

It ended with Denny Hamlin ousting Chase Elliott for victory in a two-driver race over a wild final 50 laps. Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick also made late pushes to finish third and fourth, within two and a half seconds of Hamlin.

Hamlin, who drove the No. 11 Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing, also won the first two stages of the race as the leader in 80 and 160 laps, respectively. He is the first driver in the Cup series this year to have survived all three stages of a race.

But it took a while before the race could fully begin.

The Dixie Vodka 400, the final of four races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, was originally scheduled to start at 3:56 p.m., but fog at Turn 4 and lightning in the area caused a 55-minute delay.

When the green flag finally came at 4:51 p.m. at the start of the race, it took five laps. More lightning. Further delays worth two hours and eight minutes. The 38 cars sat at the end of the pit lane, revealed, drivers out.

In the middle of that delay, there was a hoax where drivers re-fired their engines only to hit another lightning bolt within 10 miles of the track, forcing NASCAR to restart its 30-minute timer.

7:10 p.m .: After the laps before the restart, the race is again under a green flag. They made it to the 33rd round. Lightning struck again. Another 38 minutes under red caution and a total of an hour before the race returned to a sunset after Turn 1 and around 250 fans were still on the track.

The race went on under the light and into the night.

“It’ll be cooler when we go,” Hamlin said before the second leg began. “We’ll do our best to keep up with it.”

Hamlin had no problem adapting and ran 138 laps throughout the race, including the last 30, to claim his third Cup Series win of the season.

Aside from weather delays and adjustments during the race, the Homestead-Miami Speedway has followed a similar format to the last seven Cup Series races last month since NASCAR resumed its season in mid-May.

There was no exercise. There was no qualifying. Teams are limited to 16 crew members, including the driver, and are restricted to specific work areas on site. Everyone goes through a health screening before entering. Masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment are mandatory.

“At the moment everything is so different that nothing feels normal,” said Kyle Busch on Saturday. “You’re coming to the racetrack. It’s very empty. It feels like you’re here for a test session, test race or something. “

In addition, the Homestead-Miami Speedway has lost relatively less of NASCAR’s season prospects.

This was the first time in 18 years that NASCAR weekend in Homestead was not a championship weekend. Homestead’s races have been moved to the early part of the schedule – originally March 20-22, before COVID-19 changed those plans – and the championship races moved to Phoenix for 2020.

The passion is still there. The pressure to win? Not that much in June compared to November.

“Being down here this time and not having a championship on the line is certainly different,” said Busch, the Cup Series defending champion. “It’s a bit bittersweet that we don’t have this opportunity right now, but overall I feel like it’s like any other race now.”

A step towards a normal racing environment, however, came on Sunday when 1,000 guests – mostly military personnel, first responders and their families – sat in the grandstands with a capacity of 46,000 for the Dixie Vodka 400. It was the first time fans have been to a professional American sporting event since the sport was first postponed three months ago. NASCAR ran its first month of racing on empty speedways.

Up to 5,000 will stand in the stands at Talladega Motor Speedway next week as NASCAR continues what it calls a “very methodical, very measured” approach to bringing fans back and serving as a potential template for other leagues.

“It’s great,” said seven-time Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson. “Of course it will be difficult for a thousand people in such a large venue to generate the energy we normally have, but from my point of view it is an important first step for us to understand procedures and protocols to eventually fill the booths . I am very happy that we can take this first step now and look forward to where it will take us in the future. “

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez, and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez spoke to the sparse crowd before the race, thanking the military and first responders for their presence.

“You are few, but you are powerful,” said Nunez. “We appreciate what you do for us. We stand behind you. We don’t just honor those who have served. We serve those who serve. “

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