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After hosting NASCAR's return, Darlington set to open Cup Series playoffs

Clint Bowyer was as puzzled as anyone last May returning to Darlington Raceway about whether NASCAR could handle a pandemic.

He remembers seeing scores of people camping out at a dragstrip not far from the South Carolina racetrack -- "Packed to the gills with people in the pit area," he recalled -- and rolled on to the race.

"I'm not going to lie, I was really confused," Bowyer said.

Not all questions have answers, but one thing is certain: NASCAR is back on track as it starts its playoffs at the Southern 500 this weekend. The series started without fans and week by week gained more knowledge and momentum as it followed strict protocols to keep racing.

"They've done a good job of bobbing and weaving as they go in this age of pandemic, and we're still standing," Bowyer said.

That will be on full display Sunday night at the track "Too Tough To Tame," which hosts a third NASCAR race for the first time in its 70-year history. Track leaders were already primed to kick off the playoff chase. But whatever happens this week, it could be difficult to top the importance Darlington played to NASCAR's season in May.

Kevin Harvick, the playoff field's top seed, gained one of his seven victories in the Darlington return. He exited the car after the win, looked around at the empty raceway and called it "surreal."

Still, it was a start.

Three nights later, Denny Hamlin (seeded second with six wins) took another Darlington race as part of NASCAR's plan to make up for lost events.

Kurt Busch called it a "powerful" return week he won't soon forget.

"It came with a big moment of responsibility, but also everybody embraced that moment to create something big for NASCAR," Busch said. "To get back to some sense of normalcy, everybody deserves a pat on the back in the NASCAR community."

Darlington president Kerry Tharp said the cooperation of NASCAR leaders and state leaders ensured the return.

"Darlington and the state of South Carolina were at the forefront of bringing back live sports to our country," Tharp said. "Something we all desperately needed at that unprecedented time."

It will be a different Darlington this time around. The track got permission from the state to host about 8,000 fans (about a sixth of its 47,000-seat capacity) for Sunday night's crown jewel event.

And it will be NASCAR's yearly throwback weekend, a popular event when racers and their machines dress out in funky, fabulous costumes celebrating racing's past.

Tharp said the weekend is typically chock full of Hall of Fame drivers connecting with fans and making appearances. That can't happen this time because of concerns about the coronavirus.

"We'll miss that part of it, for sure," he said.

Chase Elliott, seeded fifth with two wins this season, had doubts the circuit would get this far in 2020.

"I was for sure skeptical that we were going to even have a season when all this started. So, yeah, I'm super happy that we have a chance to race and are able to do what we're doing," he said. "I know it's a little bit different, but we're still able to put on races each week and still able to compete and put a good product on TV."

Bowyer, the veteran with 10 career victories, is not surprised the NASCAR community found the path back to competition before other major sports.

"I've seen it my whole life," he said. "Racers find a way and they find a way before the next guy."