Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Kevin Harvick has learned to tame Darlington Raceway in recent years. Sunday (May 17), he became the only repeat winner at the Lady in Black since 2014. Early in his career, Harvick’s relationship with the track was a rocky one, to say the least, but he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at Darlington since 2013. Harvick’s No. 4 was stout all day long as he finished fourth in each of the first two stages but it was his pit stall and crew that gave him the winning edge. His team gave him the lead off pit road on several occasions, including the stop that mattered most — the last one. It was Harvick’s 50th career race win, moving him into a tie with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 12th most of all time. That’s pretty good company no matter how you slice it.
Harvick put the blue oval in Victory Lane, but the second-best Ford finish? It wasn’t one of Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, nor was it a Team Penske Driver. It was 22-year-old rookie John Hunter Nemechek, driving for Front Row Motorsports, who took advantage of a car that was fast off the hauler and the other teams’ lack of practice to advance from his 34th-place start all the way to ninth. It’s his career-best performance, his first Cup top 10 and first top-20 result on a non-superspeedway. Nemechek drove like a veteran on Sunday at one of the sport’s hardest tracks to learn.
What… was the hidden gem in the race?
Nemechek wasn’t the only driver to get a career-best finish on Sunday. Fellow rookie Tyler Reddick drove the No. 8 to a seventh-place result for Richard Childress Racing. In five races so far this season, Reddick has been the top rookie three times. His only misses have been after getting involved in crashes at Daytona International Speedway and Phoenix Raceway. Those two missteps have left him 25th in points, but don’t be fooled. Reddick easily outran teammate Austin Dillon as well as RCR satellite drivers Ty Dillon and Bubba Wallace on Sunday.
Reddick’s run at Darlington looked more like that of a veteran than a rookie, and he’s only going to get better. Will he turn into another Harvick for RCR – a driver running perhaps even better than his equipment at times, and one who contended for wins despite being outgunned on paper? Time will tell, but don’t be surprised if he’s RCR’s best driver by season’s end.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter Brad Keselowski had an OK day but was never a factor after the early going. His team reeled off some excellent pit stops, and Keselowski led three times for a total of 80 laps. But the No. 2 fell off as others hit on the right adjustments, and he came home 13th, the best of the Team Penske herd.
Fall Darlington winner Erik Jones is really, really good at dancing with the Lady in Black. Consider this: his eighth-place finish actually lowers his average slightly from 4.7 to a measly 5.5 and ties his career-worst finish at the track. It’s safe to say a lot of drivers would like to have had a career-low as good as Jones had Sunday.
Active Darlington win leader Jimmie Johnson looked like he might have a fourth win up his sleeve early on, but a tangle with Chris Buescher on the final lap of the first stage, which Johnson was leading, put an end to that, and to Johnson’s day. He finished 38th. The takeaway is better than that because Johnson had powered to the lead on lap 82 and made it look easy. He could be a threat on Wednesday if he can overcome his starting spot.
Last week’s winner (well, Phoenix winner), Joey Logano is the only driver to post two wins in 2020, but Sunday wasn’t looking like a third almost from the get-go. Logano’s crew, like their Team Penske teammates, never hit on the adjustments to contend, and he limped home 18th.
A returning Matt Kenseth, who has not raced in the Cup Series since 2018, certainly faced a daunting task: racing a package he was unfamiliar with at one of NASCAR’s most difficult tracks without a single lap of seat time prior to the green flag in a car that was largely prepared for another driver. So what did Kenseth do? With his usual stealth, he drove the car from a top 20 to a top 10 in the closing laps, finishing 10th.
When… was the moment of truth?
The whole day was the moment of truth. As eerie as the silent track was after the engines cut off and as strange as it was to see Harvick standing alone in Victory Lane, it was a welcome sight after weeks of waiting and hoping for the season to get back underway.
NASCAR acted responsibly, limiting people at the track as much as possible and keeping those who were there apart and masked as much as they could. How successful were those efforts? That’s the unknown here.
The season is still largely a question mark as the world continues to battle the coronavirus and to learn enough about it to find successful treatments for victims. As the number of infected continues to rise in many areas, next week is not the sure thing it should have been. The stands may be silent for weeks or months, and the racing itself could be shelved again at any time. So, what we learned this week was simple: to enjoy every moment of every race because we can’t take it for granted.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Well, keep on watching, because the racing isn’t over yet! The Xfinity Series is scheduled to race at Darlington Tuesday night, and the Cup drivers return Wednesday for an encore. That race will have a twist: the field will be set with the top 20 finishers from Sunday starting in reverse order, which will put Ryan Preece on the pole with Ty Dillon outside row one at the start. The 21st-40th-place finishers Sunday will start where they finished.
But this race, and the Wednesday night races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway in the next few weeks, could be game-changers. If the television networks find them profitable, there could be midweek races scheduled in the future. There’s more riding on them than just three rescheduled races. NASCAR has toyed with the idea of midweek races before but never put it to the test. Now they have that chance.
How… much was racing missed?
At the end of the day, the growl of the engines and the collective heartbeat of the sport is what drivers, teams and fans live for. And it sure felt good to have it back. Stay safe, everyone, so we can keep hearing the sounds that touch our very soul.