NASCAR Darlington Auto Racing

Pit crews members for driver Denny Hamlin watch during the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday in Darlington, S.C.

NASCAR did what it needed to do Sunday.

It started things. It nudged them forward. It said that this could be done, then did it.

A lot of people might say that sports don’t matter. They’re wrong. If this is the time to dig in and believe what we want to believe, then I believe this: Sports matter.

To be able to dust off the TV mattered. To be able to carve out a four-hour period to be in one place mattered. To be able to see a winner and a loser and all those in between mattered.

Kevin Harvick won the race at Darlington. Remember that, perhaps, when you’re playing a trivia game 20 years from now, when they ask about 2020 sports. That fact that he won truly was trivial.

The fact that they raced? Hell, that was crucial.

There is no “escape” from the place that we find ourselves. Drivers and crew members wore masks before the race started on Sunday. Reporters wore masks. Television commentators Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon social distanced from a studio. During commercial breaks, companies told us how much they care about us and want to see us get through all of this.

So it’s not like we were all transported to some magical place where COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Good.

It does exist. And our job is to deal with it like adults.

In this respect, NASCAR couldn’t have done better. The broadcast never made it feel like we were in some fantasy land. Darius Rucker sang the national anthem “virtually.” The crew members social distanced when they weren’t changing tires.

This isn’t what we sports fans ultimately want, of course. We want to see what we’re used to seeing. High-fives, hugs, champagne showers. We’ll have to wait for those.

What we did get, though, was something that was sorely needed: some actually competition. We saw a wreck on the first lap of the race. We saw Jimmie Johnson – whom so many people wanted to see hit the wall randomly circa 2007 – hit the wall randomly while leading the first stage of this race and engender compassion.

We saw advertisements peel off the wall and stick to the front of Denny Hamlin’s car, the ultimate case of a sport’s devotion to sponsorship calling in its debts.

We saw sports. And we should be thankful.

They’ll race again on Wednesday. That’s good, too.

But we were reminded of how far we still have to go when Harvick was interviewed by Fox after the race.

Some random dude should have been hugging Harvick. His fire suit should have been covered in beer. Instead, the mask-wearing Harvick made a powerful statement.

“I didn’t think it was much different,” he said. “Then we won the race, and it’s dead silent.”

He’s right. Fans in the seats are next. You can’t really have sports without them.

We’ll get there. But to do so, somebody had to take the first step.

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