Seventy days. That's how long in between races for the NASCAR Cup Series in an unprecedented stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sunday, May 17 marks their first race back with a 400-mile affair at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
I've already written about the unprecedented risk vs. reward for NASCAR's decision to be the first "major" sport jumping back to full-time competition. Here, let's focus on how the NASCAR season left off. Two months seems like a decade ago, doesn't it?
Four races in, the sport was receiving major kudos for its 2020 tweaks to the short track package. Joey Logano won a thrilling event at Phoenix Raceway, his second win in four starts to clinch a playoff spot for who-knows-when. But it's Kevin Harvick that leads the standings by a point, the 2014 Series champ yet to finish outside the top 10 this season for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Behind the top two, Hendrick Motorsports has shown early strength. Chase Elliott sits third in points and has led the most laps thus far (186). Teammate Alex Bowman, who signed a contract extension (more on that in a minute) dominated the March race at Auto Club Speedway. And who's that sitting fifth in points? Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, enjoying a strong start to his final full-time season in the Cup Series.
There will be at least one spot opening up inside the current top 16 in points. Kyle Larson, seventh in the standings after Phoenix, is sidelined for the foreseeable future after uttering a racial slur cost him a job at Chip Ganassi Racing. Matt Kenseth is filling in, as the 48-year-old and 2003 Cup Series champion was hired to drive the No. 42 the rest of the year with Ross Chastain rumored to take the ride in 2021.
There's a couple of big names currently outside the top 16 after slow starts: William Byron and Erik Jones. Byron is hoping his dominance in the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series (three wins) will translate over to real asphalt. Now in his third season, Byron sits winless in Cup despite driving one of the iconic cars in the sport: Jeff Gordon's former No. 24.
Finally, Ryan Newman will return to the series, taking over the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford after Daytona 500 injuries left him sidelined for three races. Newman, who received a playoff waiver, sits inside the top 30 in points (29th) despite earning just that single top-10 finish, running across the finish line upside down.
It's hard to gauge what to expect from this group heading to Darlington. COVID-19 means a one-day show, no practice time and an early competition caution to make in-race adjustments. But in that type of situation, you'd think the cream would rise to the top. Veteran leadership from the cockpit will be key this weekend at one of the most difficult tracks on the circuit.
The Real Heroes 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick
It's no wins, no problem for the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran who's climbed to the top of the point standings with finishes of 5th, 8th, 9th, and 2nd. It's even more impressive considering his three SHR teammates have just one top-five finish between them and 16 laps led in 12 starts.
Who's at the Back: Joe Gibbs Racing
Some might say this label is a bit harsh. After all, Denny Hamlin started off the season with his third Daytona 500 win in five years. But since then? Hamlin has no other top-five finishes and has slid to 11th in points, the best of the four JGR drivers.
Kyle Busch has been solid (two top-five finishes) but unspectacular, leading just 14 laps in the first four races. Martin Truex Jr. sits 15th in points, adjusting to life without crew chief Cole Pearn while crashing out twice in four starts. And Erik Jones is outside the top 16 looking in although he's the defending winner at Darlington, prevailing in last September's Southern 500.
Alex Bowman has signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2021 season. The move comes a month after Bowman had a strong iRacing performance, winning Talladega in April and then said there was “no movement” on his expiring contract due to the pandemic. He’ll continue to pilot the No. 88 for the team.
NASCAR has announced a revised Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series schedule through late June. The list includes stops at Bristol Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, and Homestead-Miami Speedway. There's no word yet on the Pocono doubleheader scheduled for the end of June as Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf says the state has not yet given a green light for a return to racing.
Jeffrey Earnhardt is returning to NASCAR in an Xfinity Series ride with JD Motorsports.The 30-year-old grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr. has one top-five Xfinity Series finish in 73 career starts. His part-time ride with Joe Gibbs Racing in NXS was sidelined last year due to sponsorship trouble.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup races scheduled at Darlington this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a new record for a track that’s been on the schedule since 1950.
Drivers on the entry list for this race, the first time the Cup Series has a full field since February’s Daytona 500.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Boy, what a crapshoot for Sunday considering the variety of unknowns surrounding COVID-19. You might even enter into a situation where a driver gets replaced before the start of the race if they’re showing symptoms.
Worst-case scenarios aside, you want veterans at the top of your list. Kevin Harvick has seven straight top-10 finishes here at Darlington. Martin Truex Jr. has five straight top-15 results, winning here as recently as 2016. And Kyle Busch has gone 10 years here without a performance worse than 11th.
Last year's Southern 500 winner Erik Jones may be in a good position to get his unwieldy 2020 season on track. He's starting 20th, leaving open the potential for strong position differential points, and has never run outside the top 10 at Darlington.
Matt Kenseth is a total roll of the dice as he's running his first Cup Series race in over a year. But that No. 42 car he's driving? It was at or near the top of the list for the last few Southern 500s with Kyle Larson. Kenseth, who won here in 2013, is a dark horse.
I don't know if you can consider Matt DiBenedetto lower-tier anymore considering his strong start with the Wood Brothers. But he's coming off an eighth-place finish in last September's Southern 500, starts third on Sunday and should be in a position to deliver another top 10.
You know who was 11th in last September's Southern 500? Daniel Suarez. He's with the smaller, single-car Gaunt Brothers Racing team now but has a shot at a reset on the season after a disastrous start. (One that included a Daytona 500 DNQ). Rookie Cole Custer, meanwhile has a shot to replicate Suarez's result in the No. 41. He starts 14th.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick lead the way with 9/2 odds for the Darlington event. Joey Logano is right behind at 7/1.
If you want the longest of slingshots... how about Ryan Newman winning in his first race back? That's 110/1.
What I Think
I think a much-anticipated NASCAR COVID-19 return becomes more conventional than most anticipated. Kevin Harvick winds up cruising out front, making the most of his strong relationship with crew chief Rodney Childers, and wins at Darlington.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.