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Harvick looks to jumpstart winless year again at Darlington

FILE – In this May 17, 2020, file photo, the grandstands are empty at Darlington Raceway before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Darlington, S.C. Darlington Raceway officials are excited about hosting the first of two scheduled NASCAR weekends, something the track hadn’t featured since 2004. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

By PETE IACOBELLI, DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Kevin Harvick is hoping his winless start to the season will end at Darlington Raceway — just like last year.

Harvick hadn’t taken the checkered flag in 2020 until winning at the “Lady in Black” last May 17 in NASCAR’s return to racing after more than two months away because of the pandemic.

Eight more victories followed, including a win at the Southern 500 on the old country track last Labor Day weekend.

Once again, Harvick comes to Darlington without a victory, looking to jumpstart another season at the Goodyear 400 on Sunday.

“It’s been a lot of fun to have been able to win there a few times now,” said Harvick, a three-time Darlington champion.

The last two wins there were particularly significant for Harvick. His 50th career NASCAR Cup Series came at Darlington last May, without fans, in the sport’s return to racing from a COVID-19 suspension. Four months later, Harvick won the Southern 500 in front of about 7,000 spectators and soaked in the cheers from grateful fans happy to see live racing.

“Winning the Southern 500 and being able to go back to Victory Lane and celebrate in front of some fans was different from the first time of dead silence,” Harvick recalled.

These days, Harvick is ready for to win again. He’s had eight top-10 finishes, including his best placing of the year — second to Kyle Busch a week ago at Kansas.

Harvick savored his Darlington victory a year ago because of the its significance amid a pandemic.

“It was, ‘OK, you can’t race anymore, and you don’t know when you’re going to race again.’ Being able to go back to the racetrack and go back to Victory Lane and get back to work was pretty much a relief,” Harvick said.

That showed the rest of the year as Harvick zoomed through the NASCAR schedule, winning twice at Michigan and succeeding on short tracks like Bristol and big tracks like Indianapolis.

That success hasn’t carried over. Harvick said this month he understands that winning in bunches one season provides no guarentees.

“Last year, everything went our way,” he said. “This year it hasn’t really gone our way.”

He believes that can change at Darlington.

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Things to watch at the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway:

STILL SEARCHING: Points leader Denny Hamlin and defending series champion Chase Elliott are also without victories in 2021.

Hamlin has three wins at Darlington, including the second of two May races in NASCAR’s return to action. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has struggled the last two starts, ending 32nd at Talladega and 12th at Kansas.

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