The Headline(s): The last time the NASCAR Cup Series raced at Darlington outside of Labor Day weekend, Kevin Harvick drove to victory lane in 2014. Six years later, Harvick did it again, leading 159 laps to score a convincing victory in The Real Heroes 400. It’s Harvick’s first win of 2020, 50th career Cup win and 111th NASCAR national series victory.
— Darlington Raceway (@TooToughToTame) May 18, 2020
Aided by a pit crew that, sans one stop at the end of stage two, was untouchable on pit road, Harvick led the final 79 laps. He weathered a final, well-executed restart challenge from Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott on the last restart on lap 260 before riding off into the sunset. Bowman, Kurt Busch, Elliott and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers.
How It Happened: NASCAR’s return to racing lasted less than one lap before the first caution flew. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. destroyed his car exiting turn 2 after forcing himself into a four-wide pack. Stenhouse would later take responsibility for the wreck on social media.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 17, 2020
Once the race restarted, pole sitter Brad Keselowski would lead the way until a competition caution flew to check tire wear on lap 30. The lengthy yellow ended on lap 40, with Keselowski holding off a challenge from Jimmie Johnson before Bowman took the point from both veterans on lap 45.
Bowman and Johnson would run 1-2 for the next 35 laps as their teammate William Byron surged into the top five, with Johnson assuming the lead from Bowman on lap 82. Byron charged up in the closing laps of stage one, but that’s when disaster struck for the three-time Darlington winner. On the final lap, Johnson spun himself after contact with Chris Buescher. The resulting wreck ended Johnson’s day and handed Byron the stage win.
Heartbreak for @JimmieJohnson!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 17, 2020
Harvick’s pit crew got him the lead during stage break pit stops, an advantage he would hold for nearly all of stage two. He kept track position even through several pit cycles that ensued.
Among the stoppages were a lap 109 yellow that saw Byron spin in turn 2 with a cut tire; a single-car spin on lap 136 involving Daniel Suarez; and an odd incident on lap 161 that saw the yellow flag fly when a sponsor banner on the turn 4 wall flew onto the grill of Hamlin and Tyler Reddick.
The yellow flag flew again on lap 173 when Christopher Bell spun on turn 4 exit, leading to a pit cycle that saw Harvick’s crew have their one misfire of the afternoon. A slow stop allowed Keselowski’s No. 2 crew to take the point. Keselowski headed off Martin Truex Jr. on a lap 176 restart and drove to the stage two win, marking the second consecutive Cup race that saw the No. 2 capture the second stage.
Bowman would win the race off pit road but Keselowski reassumed the lead on lap 193, staying out front until the caution flew on lap 213. That’s when Buescher found himself spun on the frontstretch after contact from Bell; both drivers ended up with disappointing afternoons.
From there, Harvick took the lead off pit road on lap 216 and never looked back.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
It was not a surprise to see a veteran win at Darlington, but Harvick scored his 50th career Cup victory in vintage form. Clean air is always important on the egg-shaped oval, but a driver has to do something with it when their pit crew delivers time and time again. Harvick did. 50 Cup wins over his career speaks volumes.
It’s one thing for Bowman to have scored Cup victories on cookie-cutter ovals (Chicagoland Speedway, Auto Club Speedway). To see him viably contend for a race win at Darlington, in the same week that Hendrick Motorsports signed him to a contract extension, was a statement performance. The run has added value on a day that saw two of his teammates fall victim to self-induced mistakes.
Reddick’s dirt-tracking skills were on full display on the sandy banks of Darlington Sunday. The Richard Childress Racing rookie shone high above fellow freshmen Bell and Cole Custer en route to a career-best seventh-place finish.
Sadly, FOX’s coverage never got around to how they did it, but John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 38 team came out of nowhere during the final stage to finish inside the top 10 (ninth). That’s a career-best for Nemechek in Cup competition and a career-best for Front Row Motorsports at Darlington. Prior to Sunday, since 2005 the team had fielded 28 Cup entries at the Lady in Black and finished in the top 20 only three times.
Meanwhile, what’s old is new again at Chip Ganassi Racing. Having spent a tumultuous few weeks dealing with the fallout of Kyle Larson’s slur heard round the world, the team’s veteran driver lineup delivered at Darlington. For Kurt Busch, his third-place finish was his best at Darlington since 2017. More impressive, however, was the return of Matt Kenseth both to Cup racing… and to the top 10 in the finishing order. Despite having never driven a Cup car in the “package” era, Kenseth’s run in the No. 42 made for the third consecutive Darlington race that saw both CGR cars finish inside the top 10. You know what they say about old age and treachery….
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
It’s hard to know which bowtie driver sullied their image more in turn 2 this Sunday: Stenhouse or Johnson. By forcing himself into a wreck on the first lap of NASCAR’s return to racing, “Wrecky Stenhouse” was again lighting up social media. As an apology post-race demonstrated, he had no one to blame but himself for finishing dead last and earning an unwanted distinction behind the wheel of the No 47.
— Brock Beard (@LASTCARonBROCK) May 17, 2020
As for Johnson, the strongest form the No. 48 team has shown in literally years all went out the window on lap 90. Undoubtedly, Johnson heard footsteps behind him and spun himself out after making contact with Buescher on turn 2 exit. Despite the efforts of his former teammate in the broadcast booth to absolve him (more on that later), the seven-time champion looked anything but when his race came to an end 200 laps short of the finish. This mistake is not one Johnson would have made a decade ago.
Roush Fenway Racing’s day could only be described as disappointing. As if being blamed for that lap 90 wreck wasn’t enough, Buescher’s day got worse on lap 211 when unprovoked contact from Bell sent him spinning. The resulting 32nd-place finish was Buescher’s first result outside the top 20 since Dover last September.
As for Ryan Newman, though his return to Cup competition was a welcome sight to see, a strong stage one that saw the No. 6 surge into the top 10 was derailed by a pit-road speeding penalty shortly thereafter. Next came a spin on lap 254, dropping him to 15th on a day that should have been a top 10. That’s a big deal for a team that had to sneak into the playoffs a year ago.
Keselowski’s strong performance in the opening stages went out the window during the final 100 miles, with the driver losing rear-end grip and never finding it again. A top-five fixture car ended up 13th.
Quin Houff certainly wasn’t done any favors when FOX reported during the pace laps that he was making a Cup start on arguably the sport’s toughest racetrack despite having never turned a competitive lap at said facility. He was more harshly done in, however, by a failed fuel pump that forced the No. 00 car behind the wall less than halfway into Sunday’s race. Such fuel issues plagued the team’s former driver Landon Cassill several times last season and left Houff 36th. He has yet to finish inside the top 30 in 2020.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
It was absolutely fantastic to have NASCAR back live and racing. That said return came at badass Darlington Raceway was sweet. That Darlington as of Wednesday is going to be on track to become the first oval since Bowman-Gray Stadium in 1963 to host three Cup points races in the same year? Even sweeter.
NASCAR deserves a lot of credit for pulling off the first return of a major professional sport in the United States. Judging from the cameras on pit road during pre-race, the system devised to keep the drivers properly isolated worked very well. Security around the track was obviously tight, preventing the venue from becoming an impromptu gathering that would run afoul of distancing requirements.
It is EMPTY on the streets outside Darlington. There are more reporters looking for Person on the Street quotes than there are People on the Street to give quotes. pic.twitter.com/vBivDiKTnW
— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) May 17, 2020
But most of all, that the sport managed to put on a Cup race with only 900 essential personnel at the track is nothing short of miraculous and worthy of commendation. Just for comparison, Raceway Park up in North Dakota, when hosting the second short track race in the United States since the pandemic, had 101 cars show up to race, with a limit of 10 persons per car (up to 1,010 persons). Essential personnel meant essential personnel, and for that, the sanctioning body should be applauded.
As was the case at any racetrack that has returned to racing with distancing in effect, Sunday wasn’t perfect. Just as was observed at Park Jefferson Speedway in North Dakota, which allowed teams to use the grandstands during competition, the best-laid intentions for distancing eventually wore down. On Sunday, that came in the form of spotters, who under the lap 213 yellow flag were telecast on FOX appearing to be doing anything but socially distancing in the grandstands.
Left side. right arm and left arm are on seat backs next to each other. Right side. 4 arms from 3 ppl within 6 seat backs. Guy in blue (sitting down) within 1 seat back of person standing behind him. Verifiable facts. pic.twitter.com/RPqibbVj2E
— JustRox (@mslyson) May 18, 2020
Shortly after that shot was telecast, MRN’s Hannah Newhouse provided a shot of her own, demonstrating the spotters to be distanced far more than it appeared in that initial tweet.
That’s a deceiving camera shot.
Here’s how the spotters actually look from pit road. pic.twitter.com/b7sQogbQNY
— Hannah Newhouse (@HannahNewhouse) May 17, 2020
But, having said that, Newhouse’s tweet hit as Jim Utter, one of the handful of media actually on-site at Darlington Sunday, reported NASCAR had, indeed, talked to the spotters and told them to distance further. Plus, as confirmed by FOX’s Bob Pockrass, the NASCAR bulletin for Sunday’s race mandated that spotters maintain six-foot distancing from each other. Brett Griffin, spotter for Clint Bowyer, pretty much confirmed that said distancing did not occur for the entirety of Sunday’s race.
1. Thanks to everyone who watched.
2. I don’t care if they showed us chicken fighting we social distanced our asses off. Clearly this was under caution and we were shuffling to the bathroom and to have needed convos with other spotters.
3. Congrats to SHR! Winners. https://t.co/CrRGS7AYMF
— Brett Griffin (@SpotterBrett) May 17, 2020
Spotters scrunched together is not a glitch that is going to derail NASCAR’s return; it can be resolved by NASCAR placing officials in the stands to ensure six-foot distancing is maintained on Wednesday night. But, lost in a shuffle of debate over photo angles that hasn’t been seen since debating 2017 presidential inauguration shots, is the fact that the spotters, despite both the temptation and necessity of communicating with fellow spotters to do their jobs, CAN’T let this happen.
Sunday’s race was nearly four hours long. Hospitals right now are operating with rules that contact inside of six feet with a positive individual for more than 10 minutes is grounds for quarantine. If one spotter is asymptomatic positive, and said spotters congregate just for a few laps spent under caution, the threshold is met. That’s all it’d take to cripple the spotter corps.
Use a giant whiteboard, use a megaphone, use an old-school chalkboard. Live free and race. It can be done six feet apart with a mask on.
The same thing can be said for FOX’s broadcast team. For them to pull off the coverage they did with only one pit reporter and more reliance on drones than any NASCAR telecast ever, Sunday’s return to Cup racing didn’t miss a beat. I’m not going to nitpick several small stories that never got reported (Garrett Smithley’s exit from the race, the turn 2 fire reported by MRN that was never addressed) because at day’s end, we got a product worth watching.
I am, however, growing concerned that Darrell Waltrip’s self-professed bias toward Kyle Busch is being replaced by Jeff Gordon’s continued affinity for the Hendrick brigade. That Gordon even tried to assign blame of any kind to Buescher is gravely concerning… face it, lap 90 was Jimmie’s fault.
On second thought, the Kyle Busch bias isn’t gone, either. FOX made a point to hype that Rowdy intends to run four Cup races, two Xfinity races and a Truck Series race during the first leg of #nascarisback. So does Timmy Hill. So much for an iRacing bump for Hill, who also struggled to a 33rd-place finish, seven laps off the pace.
As for the start time Sunday? That’s one thing you could nitpick. There are literally NO competitive live sports to compete with right now, yet the race didn’t go green until inside of 10 minutes to 4 p.m. local time. Believe it or not, many of us, this writer included, still have to go to work Monday. At least the tropical storm held off….
The lap 154 yellow that flew because a Blue Emu sponsor banner broke up and draped over several racecars was certainly amusing, even more so given the headlines the sponsor made when they “fired” Bubba Wallace for rage-quitting an iRace. But, let’s be real. The banner episode couldn’t hold a candle to JJ Yeley’s exploits at the ROVAL two years ago.
“This sign is dangerous and inconvenient but I sure do love Bojangles chicken”- JJ Yeley probably pic.twitter.com/4uMaxNGscz
— Mikayla Jade 🦋🏳️🌈 (@RepLover89) March 27, 2020
Knowing there would likely be a number of first-time viewers. FOX’s broadcast catered towards novice race fans throughout Sunday’s race. Nothing wrong with that, especially considering it got us an old-school lineup announcement of driver names and sponsors during the pace laps that’s been sorely lacking for years.
Having said that, the strategy was largely undone by just how complicated the first 30 laps of the race were. Not only was it stopped for a competition caution, NASCAR also opted to modify the pit stop rules under said competition yellow to prevent teams from losing/gaining spots. Try explaining that to newbies that already have to learn the algebra that is stage and playoff points.
New fans aside, though the Cup field does deserve credit for driving a serviceable race without practice time on the track, the sport would do well to avoid that circumstance and allow for limited practice at the track. Given that we’re already waiting until the dog days of the afternoon to start the race, there’s no reason NASCAR couldn’t have drivers jump on around noon for a single tire run to practice.
Give the teams one set of tires and make it clear to them that once the driver leaves the track or a crewman touches the car, their practice is over. There’s no reason for teams not to make a long run because there’s no qualifying to do! That’ll put rubber on the track to avoid unnecessary yellows, give crews a chance to make adjustments, and can still be accomplished in one day.
While FOX’s pre-race segment on Newman and his daughters was touching, I was honestly surprised to see the Rocket of all people toeing the human interest line, with nothing to be said over the last two months about the dangers of restrictor-plate racing. Newman has been a vocal critic of pack racing in the past, and for good reason. Even before February’s horrifying wreck, Newman endured a violent flip in the 2003 Daytona 500 that ripped the rear axle from his car, as well as a destructive crash at Talladega in 2009 that took the jaws of life to extricate him. That Newman has refrained from such commentary is perhaps greater validation for NASCAR’s safety efforts than the photos of him leaving the hospital with his daughters. Though it’s also possible that in our new reality, there’s larger concerns to be had….
— Ryan Newman (@RyanJNewman) May 18, 2020
Both Byron and Newman appeared to intentionally spin themselves out to draw yellow flags during Sunday’s race. Neither pulled a Bubba and admitted to it publicly. It’s a sad state of affairs that taking ownership and admitting to doing something is worse than just doing it.
The state of affairs at HMS is anything but sad, even if Byron and Johnson screwed up race-winning cars (Byron later reported to his team after his incident on lap 109 that he knew he had a loose wheel and should have pitted before his spin). At one point Sunday, HMS was running 1-2-3, and three of the four cars in the stable had race-winning speed. Chevrolet is back as a whole (see CGR), but it’s worth noting that despite the uncertainty of the pandemic environment, HMS added a bunch of certainty to their shop. Johnson has reconfirmed he will not return to the No. 48 for 2021 and Bowman will be, signing a contract extension on Saturday. It’s hardly surprising that building a certain future motivates performance in these times.
The Racing Insiders reported Sunday (hat tip: Christian Koelle) that Road America is slated to host its first Cup race since 1956 following a controversial court-ordered end of Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order. While I’m all for adding new venues to the Cup slate, I’ve got to question the wisdom of trying to broadcast from a 4.058-mile-long road course when trying to limit personnel to the bare minimum. When it comes to adding racetracks, especially when fan capacity isn’t an issue, think smaller!
I’ve already expressed my displeasure with NASCAR’s decision to limit reporter access to select outlets numerous times in my COVID-19 shutdown commentaries. All I’ll say for this Sunday is that the sport as a whole was done a disservice by not having Kickin’ the Tires Jerry Jordan in the press box for this race. Agree or disagree with him, Jordan has been outspoken and unwavering in his belief that NASCAR racing needed to return immediately. His perspective is truly a unique one in today’s media corps, and his absence Sunday demonstrates that NASCAR’s pool selection was based on anything but diversity of perspectives.
Lastly, in a return to normalcy, paint scheme of the race goes to Joey Gase.
P30 for us today in our @AgriSupply car. Started off on the splitter until the comp, fixed that but then was too free until the end of the stage. Got her pretty good at the end so excited for Wednesday! HUGE shoutout to @NASCAR for getting us back racing & safe! #NASCARIsBack pic.twitter.com/QGkyuJQqmF
— Joey Gase Racing (@JoeyGaseRacing) May 18, 2020
Who cares if wasn’t the Southern 500? Any race at Darlington is an appropriate time for a throwback paint scheme.
Where It Rated (with one bottle a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one four cold Budweisers. This race won’t go down in Darlington lore for anything that happened on track, but the ever-abrasive Lady in Black made sure there were comers and goers all race long. A socially distanced Happy Hour worth attending.
What’s the Point(s)? Hamlin, Joey Logano, Bowman and Harvick have all locked themselves into the playoffs with their 2020 race wins. If the postseason started today, Elliott, Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, Bowyer, Truex, Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Buescher and Erik Jones would point their way in (Larson is 15th in points but not expected to compete for the Cup). Jones has a four-point lead over Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot.
Up Next: If the room’s already paid for, why leave? The Cup Series will again tackle Darlington Raceway under the lights Wednesday night, May 20. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.