When the green flag drops on Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, it will have been exactly 70 days since the checkered flag was displayed for Joey Logano in March 8’s Fan Shield 500 at Phoenix Raceway. Since then, the whole world has turned upside down and NASCAR has not been immune to it.
A return for Ryan Newman still seemed a long way off, given the nature of his Daytona 500 wreck, and hardly no one could have ever predicted that 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth would return or that Darlington Raceway would be hosting at least two Cup dates for the time since 2004, but such is the nature of this world we live in.
Newman and Kenseth will join no. 4 Kevin Harvick, no. 97 Kurt Busch and no. 48 Jimmie Johnson as the five drivers racing Sunday who also competed in both of the Darlington races in 2004.
Sunday will be Cup race no. five of the 2020 season and the first regularly-scheduled daytime Darlington race since 2004, when the track hosted race no. five of that season.
No. 19 Martin Truex Jr. holds the fifth-best avg. Cup finish (11.6 in 14 races) among all active drivers and a win in the 2016 September race, but only has a best finish of 14th in 2020, coming at Fontana.
Truex has had good speed but bad luck this season, having been in contention for a top 10 in every race but faced problems that have taken him out of a good finish, including at Fontana, where a bad pit stop with 40 laps to go took him out of a top 10 finish.
With new crew chief James Small, early-season woes were bound to happen for the new driver-crew chief pairing. What could cure these woes is a win and given Truex’s speed, that may soon happen.
Truex will start 15th, which is where his teammate, Erik Jones, started en route to a Southern 500 win in September and his second career Cup win. Jones will start 20th but leads all active Cup drivers with an avg. finish of 4.7 in three races at the track.
Teammates no. 18 Kyle Busch and no. 11 Denny Hamlin will start fourth and tenth, respectively, on Sunday. Busch won at Darlington in May 2008 and Hamlin has two Darlington wins, with the most recent win coming in September 2017.
Busch and Hamlin’s former teammate, Matt Kenseth, will be making an unexpected return to the Cup Series, driving the no. 42 Chevrolet Camaro for Chip Ganassi Racing in place of the ill-fated Kyle Larson, who was suspended in April for the use of a racial slur.
Matt Kenseth will start 12th in Sunday’s race, which will be the first time that the Cup Series has run at Darlington in May since 2013. In that race, Kenseth led 17 laps en route to his first Darlington win and one of seven wins that season for Kenseth.
Kenseth’s mentor, Mark Martin, may provide an element of foreshadowing to what kind of a run we could see out of Kenseth in 2020. In 2009, Martin unexpectedly won five races, en route to a runner-up championship points finish that was just three years removed from him stepping away from full-time Cup competition for the first time.
Kenseth is just three years removed from stepping away from full-time Cup competition for the first time and two years removed from a part-time stint with Roush-Fenway Racing in the no. 6 Ford.
Like Martin in 2009, Kenseth is in a good quality ride. With a Playoff waiver to boot, he has the potential to break through for what could be one of the most unexpected Cup title runs in series history.
While Kenseth could manage one of the most unexpected Cup title runs in series history, Kenseth’s successor in the no. 6 Ford, Ryan Newman, could manage one of the most miraculous runs in series history.
Newman has a Playoff waiver covering him for the races missed while recovering from the final lap Daytona 500 wreck, which “crushed” his helmet, as Newman described in a Zoom video conference earlier this week.
Just as miraculous as it was to see him walk out of the hospital less than 48 hours after the wreck, Newman finds himself in a position to make the Playoffs. A ninth-place finish in the 500 and a third-place finish in his Duel have earned Newman 36 points, putting him 29th in points. If he were to win, Newman would be in the Playoffs, so long as he maintains a top 30 points position.
Sunday will likely be a time for Newman to ease back into Cup competition, but his eighth-best avg. finish among all active Cup drivers (12.6 over 21 races) suggests that Sunday could be more than just that.
For everyone in the field, no practice or qualifying means that Lap 1 of Sunday’s race will be a total unknown. Some drivers have never seen the Darlington Raceway in Cup competition, as the case is for the six Cup rookies in the field, and some have never raced this current aero/engine package before, as is the case for Matt Kenseth.
For those who have had seat time on iRacing, the lack of practice and qualifying may be to their advantage. Names such as no. 24 William Byron and no. 66 Timmy Hill, who won one Pro Invitational race and earned expanded sponsorship from RoofClaim.com as a result of his strong performance in the series, may benefit from this.
No matter what, 2018 Darlington winner no. 2 Brad Keselowski will lead the field to the green alongside early-season championship favorite no. 88 Alex Bowman.
Bowman has won already this season, at Fontana, and recently signed a one-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports. Meanwhile, Keselowski is still a free agent heading into 2021.
Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 starts just after 3:30 PM EST (TV: FOX; Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Darlington Raceway. The stage ends are at 90/185/293 in the 293-lap, 400-mile race.
2020 NASCAR Cup Series Winners:
Daytona 500: No. 11 Denny Hamlin
Las Vegas: No. 22 Joey Logano
Fontana: No. 88 Alex Bowman
Phoenix: No. 22 Joey Logano
Notable Playoff contenders:
No. 21 Matt DiBenedetto (9th in points, +30 points above 16th)
No. 17 Chris Buescher (14th in points, +14 points above 16th, no. 1 Kurt Busch)
No. 37 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17th in points, -2 behind 16th)
Rookie of the Year (ROTY) Standings after Phoenix:
No. 41 Cole Custer (73 points)
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (-5 points behind Custer)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-10)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-33)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-47)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-62)