It's hard to associate the coronavirus with any positives in this country. But after ending a two-month COVID-19 quarantine, NASCAR became the first major sport to "reopen" amidst this pandemic and, in the process, acquired something hard to find pretty much anywhere else in the industry.
Sunday's 400-mile race, won by Kevin Harvick, was watched by 6.32 million viewers. That's the largest audience for any May NASCAR race in four years. The 3.7 Nielsen rating was also the best for Darlington Raceway since 2011 and sits within striking distance of the sport's Super Bowl, the 2020 Daytona 500 (4.2).
The quality of the event was impressive considering NASCAR's one-day show: no practice, no qualifying. Indeed, the first time cars hit the track was right before Sunday's green flag but the competition held up: no wrecks, no dominant driver out front. No driver tested positive for coronavirus and the sport received some much-needed income for teams who have sat dormant for two months. At times, the social distancing rules were tested (see this picture of spotters in the stands) but, for the most part, NASCAR's detailed health plan was met with cooperation.
Can the sport build on their newfound spotlight with this Wednesday night race? It's a great opportunity for NASCAR, poised to remain one of the few active sports over the next month barring a coronavirus spike inside the garage area. They've desperately wanted to experiment with weeknight competition and this Twilight Zone moment gives them that chance.
Officials are also tinkering with the way to do a starting lineup without qualifying on the racetrack. The top 20 finishers from Sunday's event were inverted for this 500-kilometer sprint race; Ryan Preece, who ran 20th on Sunday, will start from the pole position. It leaves winner Kevin Harvick forced to fight from the rear and Denny Hamlin, perhaps the fastest car in Sunday's closing moments, having to sift through traffic from 16th.
The back half of the field (21st on) from that race remain in those positions for Wednesday's event. That means fast race cars from Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson, William Byron) will be exciting to watch as they try to move forward from starting positions outside the top 30. It's only a 228-lap race, the shortest scheduled Cup event for Darlington since 1965, and the first two stages are less than 70 laps apiece. It should lead to plenty of aggression and some dicey moments at an egg-shaped oval where you race the track as much as drivers around you.
NASCAR is playing with house money here although there's one potential buzzkill outside their control: Mother Nature. Rain has pummeled the area, forcing the postponement of Tuesday night's NASCAR Xfinity Series event and there's a 90 percent chance of rain in the forecast through Thursday afternoon. The last thing NASCAR needs is to drag people into public unnecessarily for a lengthy rain delay and/or cancellation. The risk of COVID-19 spreading through is still all too real.
But for the first time in a long time, the sport is filled with a rare emotion these days, hope, as it hopes to reclaim its strong 2020 start. NASCAR having the spotlight to itself the next 4-6 weeks could be the kick in the pants it needs to make a return to national prominence once again.
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Sure, this four-car team didn't wind up with the finishes they wanted. Jimmie Johnson saw a surefire stage one win end in heartbreak after misjudging the lapped car of Chris Buescher. William Byron hit the wall moments later, turning a potential winning Chevy of his own into a 35th-place disappointment.
But the team's other two drivers, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott, finished second and fourth, respectively. As a whole, it's been about 3-4 years since we've seen this type of speed up and down the Hendrick fleet. Watch out.
Who's at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Poor Stenhouse racked up more months off the racetrack in quarantine (two) then laps completed at Darlington (one). His first-lap, disastrous spin sparked plenty of memes on Twitter and feeds into a narrative the veteran wrecks a little too often. It doesn't help he's never run higher than 12th in eight Darlington starts, one of the sport's toughest racetracks some believe is a true test of a driver's talent level.
Erik Jones, last year's Southern 500 winner at Darlington, will be without crew chief Chris Gayle for this next race after the No. 20 Toyota failed Darlington post-race inspection. Gayle was also fined $20,000 for the two loose lugnuts discovered. Joe Gibbs Racing engineer Seth Chavka will replace Gayle on top of the pit box Wednesday night.
Sponsorship woes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are trickling up throughout NASCAR's lower series. Driver David Starr lost his ride at JD Motorsports this week after some small businesses backing his partnership with the team pulled out. Jeffrey Earnhardt will replace him on the team going forward.
NASCAR moved the start time of Wednesday's Darlington race up due to inclement weather in the forecast. The race was originally supposed to start at 7:30 p.m. ET but received a 90-minute boost to 6 p.m.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup wins for Kevin Harvick, bypassing his Stewart-Haas Racing boss Tony Stewart on the all-time list. That ties him with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 12th all-time.
Finishing position for Kyle Busch Sunday after a miserable race in which he started from the rear after failing pre-race inspection. It's the first time he’s finished outside the top 11 at the track since 2009.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Can you say Hendrick Motorsports? Chase Elliott didn't lead a lap at Darlington Sunday but had developed into one of the fastest cars by the finish. He's now got four top-11 finishes in his last five starts at the Lady In Black. And Alex Bowman has to be moved up a tier after a first and a second in the series' first five races. The No. 88 team needs to tweak its short-run setup for Wednesday but should be in the mix once again.
I said Matt Kenseth Sunday in this space. And what did he do? Pull off a top-10 finish in his first NASCAR race back at the Cup level since November 2018. The 2003 Cup Series champ knows how to conserve equipment here and get to the front when it really matters.
How about Kenseth's teammate Kurt Busch? Busch is still seeking his first Darlington win 17 years after losing out by inches to Ricky Craven in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. A surprise third on Sunday, he's now got four straight top-10 performances at this track for the first time in a long Cup career.
In a sprint race where track position is key, I'd take a close look at Ty Dillon. It's the first front row start of his Cup Series career (2nd) after a 19th-place finish in Sunday's 400-miler. Dillon has now finished no lower than 21st in four career Darlington starts and that qualifying effort could put him in position to give you bonus points in stage one.
You've got to give a call to John Hunter Nemechek an underfunded rookie who took Front Row Motorsports to its first ever top-10 finish at Darlington. It's only the fourth ever top-10 result for the FRM team, around since 2005, outside of the superspeedway tracks of Daytona and Talladega. The only question for Nemechek is whether lightning can strike twice at a track that's typically unforgiving for young, inexperienced drivers.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick, not surprisingly, leads the way on Darlington odds at 7/2 according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Busch, Sunday pole-sitter Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin are all tightly grouped together behind him (all 8/1 or better).
In the longshot category? How about Jimmie Johnson. He's starting at the back (37th) but had the fastest car for parts of Sunday and is sitting at 25/1.
What I Think
My pick actually won on Sunday! I'll go for a second straight win with a dark horse this week... Kurt Busch. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver finally gets that long-awaited win at a track he's wanted to knock off his bucket list of a likely Hall of Fame career.
— 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.