By Tyler Head

Credit: Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

The NASCAR Cup Series made its long-awaited return after a 71-day hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina provided a sense of normalcy in the sports world and produced a number of headlines. 

#NASCARisBack, Others Soon to Follow?

That hashtag made it all the way to #1 on Twitter Sunday afternoon as the world of sports locked its eyes on the Darlington Raceway. While NASCAR wasn’t technically the first sport to make a comeback in the United States, the UFC laid claim to that title a week ago, it was definitely the first to do it on such an enormous scale. There were roughly around 900-1000 people on Darlington’s property on race day and that amount of bodies in a given area, no matter how spacious, instantly sparks debate about social distancing and staying healthy. While there’s no way to know if every single person followed the rules to a T, everything seen on Sunday’s broadcast on FOX would suggest that was the case.

Once the green flag flew it mostly felt like a normal race, it wasn’t until race winner Kevin Harvick emerged from his #4 Ford Mustang to a silent front stretch that things felt truly odd. Fans are certainly an important part of the race day experience and it will definitely take some times to adjust to their absence.

While NASCAR varies in many ways from traditional stick and ball sports, their successful relaunch has to be seen as a positive in the sports world. While leagues like the NBA and MLB are still working tirelessly to concoct the perfect return strategy, NASCAR showed it can be done.

It Was a Good Race Too

The low-horsepower high-downforce package that has been used on NASCAR’s intermediate and larger tracks since the start of 2019 has been hit or miss at a lot of places. While the Southern 500 last fall saw a compelling battle to the end resulting in an Erik Jones victory, many fans voiced their displeasure at the high amount of on-throttle time and the lower amount of tire wear seen in the race.

Goodyear, as they’ve done at every track with the exception of Daytona this season, brought a softer tire that would create more wear and put the race back in the drivers hands. It worked.

Tire falloff was seen right from the drop of the green flag as drivers carefully pedaled around the 1.36 mile speedway for the first 30 laps prior to the competition caution. As the race went on and drivers were able to adjust on their cars, the speeds picked up and the cars were sliding around under the sticky South Carolina sun. This created multiple racing grooves and opened up passing lanes as drivers came and went throughout the race.

While I’m not a proponent of ‘cautions=a good race’, seeing seven cautions for incidents which usually stemmed from drivers being unable to wrestle their cars through the turns and as the tires wore, tells me that driver input mattered today. That’s always a good thing.

The drivers that finished up front were the ones that kept their noses clean all day and managed their equipment the best. Old school racing at its finest.

Harvick Continues a Strong Start to the Season

Harvick entered the race with the points lead and was the only driver to finish in the top 10 in every race. The only box left to tick was a trip to victory land and that’s exactly what he did on Sunday.

Harvick led a race high 159 laps and proved to have the best car. He denied Alex Bowman the lead on the final restart with 34 laps to go and set sail for victory. The win was the 50th of his career, which puts him one above car owner Tony Stewart, and locks him into NASCAR’s 2020 Playoffs. Early signs indicate that a second Cup championship might be in his future.

A Roller Coaster of a Day for Hendrick Motorsports

On lap 55 Bowman led the race followed by teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron. Chase Elliott was running in the seventh position at the time and the masses on Twitter were not shy about proclaiming Hendrick Motorsports’ return to the top of the NASCAR mountain. When Johnson made a pass for the lead with nine to go in stage 1, the hype went through the roof. It would not be the day that old seven-time finally broke his nearly 3 year winless streak though.

On the final lap of the stage Johnson ran up on the lap car of Chris Buescher exiting turn two and nudged him in the left-rear. The contact would send Johnson down the track and into the inside wall paving the way for Byron to claim the stage win.

Byron’s day would soon sour as well as just a few laps into stage 2 he’d cut a tire and find his way into the fence. William and Jimmie would finish 35th and 38th respectively.

Bowman’s day was great and he narrowly missed on his second win of the season, instead leading 41 laps and finishing runner-up. Elliott floated throughout the top 10 all race before coming home a solid fourth. HMS is definitely looking stronger, they just need a little more luck to fully validate a reclaiming of a spot with NASCAR’s current elite teams.

Kenseth Doesn’t Miss a Beat

When Matt Kenseth was named the replacement for Kyle Larson in the 42 car it wasn’t unreasonable to expect Matt to have to go through an adjustment period when he got back behind the wheel. After all, he hadn’t driven a Cup car since the 2018 season finale and had never turned a lap in a car with the current rules package prior to the green flag dropping Sunday. Add in the fact that he’s with an entirely new race team in a manufacturer that he hasn’t driven for since the 2001 Xfinity Series season and a 20th-25th place day would’ve been understandable.

Kenseth said screw that and finished 10th. Why did Joe Gibbs push this guy out again?

Rookies Turning Heads

Darlington is a tough race track, some veterans spend their entire careers trying to figure out ‘The Lady in Black’ without any success. So when a rookie heads their for the first time in a Cup car no one should expected a strong showing right? Well, don’t tell that to Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek who finished seventh and ninth respectively.

For Reddick, it’s the second race in a row he’s made serious noise against the top stars in the Cup Series. For Nemechek, it’s a solid statement that talent can truly supersede equipment shortfalls.

More to Come Soon

Sunday’s race was the first of 7 scheduled over 11 days across NASCAR’s top three series. The next event will be a 200 miler for the Xfinity Series at Darlington on Tuesday night followed by a 500k race for the Cup cars on Wednesday. If you’ve been missing NASCAR as much as I have these past 10 weeks, prepare to feast on this buffet of a schedule that we have coming up.