41 years ago, NASCAR took the national stage for the first time when the 1979 Daytona 500 became the first ever 500 mile race broadcasted live across the country. That year, a last-lap finish, post-race fistfight, and snowstorm which affected millions from Georgia to upstate New York, and caused over a foot and a half of snow in the D.C. area, catapulted NASCAR to new heights not just in the deep south, but in pockets all over the country. The combined effect of a legendary race, new broadcasting opportunities and a lucky weather phenomena gave NASCAR the boost it needed for the next two decades. However, as NASCAR has lost viewership, attendance and sponsorships, it has found itself lucking into another massive opportunity with the nation on lockdown and no other major American sports leagues competing with it for ratings. 

Without any practice runs or Cup Series races in 71 days, it is easy to question the safety of a sport that has lost 28 drivers, especially considering Sunday’s track at Darlington is known as one of the toughest in NASCAR. For a company that could continue to lose popularity without a big boost, NASCAR has found a once-in-a-generation opportunity that could make or break the future of the sport.

Despite a first-lap crash by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just seconds into the first lap of Sunday’s race, NASCAR appears to have lived up to the expectations while maintaining safety on and off the track.

Online, NASCAR captured five of the top eight trends in the United States on Twitter, with #NASCARIsBack taking the top spot as of 5:30 PM. On cable, 6.23 million people watched the race, up 38% from the last race before the hiatus, making it the most-watched non-Daytona race in three years according to Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern.

Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag in NASCAR’s first race back, a victory for Stewart-Haas Racing, but a bigger victory for NASCAR and a return for sports. As the sun began to set in South Carolina, Harvick did donuts in front of empty grandstands, a stark reminder that although NASCAR is attempting to trailblaze a return to normalcy, sports will not be the same the foreseeable future. 

The Cup Series will remain in Darlington for a Wednesday night race before traveling to Charlotte next Sunday, maintaining competition weeks before the proposed start date of Major League Baseball.