Drivers, start your engines! NASCAR returns to the track

Darlington Raceway, Sept. 2016
credit: Charlotte Bray/Skirts and Scuffs 

Race fans, in the words of Larry McReynolds, ”Reach up there and pull those belts down tight one more time,” because the words we’ve all been waiting to hear will be coming soon to Darlington Raceway.

NASCAR returns Sunday afternoon, the first on-track action since COVID-19 prompted a two-month hiatus. With a number of limitations and special procedures in place, not the least of which is no fans in the stands, these next few races will be like nothing the sport has experienced before.

In case you’ve lost count, the Real Heroes 400 will be the fifth race of the 2020 Cup season. 

NASCAR set the starting lineup by a random draw based on owner points within brackets, dividing the field into Positions 1-12, 13-24, 25-36, which came from chartered teams. They filled Positions 37-40 based on owner points among non-chartered teams.

Brad Keselowski, the last Ford driver to win at the Lady in Black, leads the field to green. The Chevy of Alex Bowman, who Saturday announced the extension of his Hendrick Motorsports contract through the 2021 season, drew the outside front row.

With no practice, no qualifying, no adjustments, and no idea how the cars will react heading into Turn 1 of the Track Too Tough to Tame, those first few laps will either be nail-biting excitement or the complete opposite as drivers feel their way around. 

Two drivers may be even more uncertain of what they’ll feel at the beginning of the race: Ryan Newman returns to the No. 6 for Roush Fenway Racing, starting in 21st place. The lockdown gave him time to heal from the horrific crash at the conclusion of the Daytona 500 in February, which at this point almost feels like it was four seasons ago, not four races.

 “I know it’s different and I guess it’s got some complexities to it, but, in the end, we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think we were capable of it, so that’s a combination of everything,” Newman stated earlier in the week. “That’s a combination of going to the race track with no practice, no qualifying; the situation that we have with the virus and making sure that we’re staying healthy and keeping our distance; being socially acceptable in doing so. It’s all manageable, it’s just going to be different. But the reality is once we get the green flag to drop, aside from a mandatory caution, it’s gonna be racing and racing as the fans have always enjoyed it and hopefully we can set a standard that allows everybody, including the fans, to enjoy the race and have fun.”

In the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing, Matt Kenseth will his first race laps in a Cup car since the end of the 2018 season.

“ I think the biggest difference for me, also, is that I haven’t driven these racecars or for this team,” Kenseth stated. “So, there are a few more unknowns. I’m not sure how exactly everything is going to feel and all that kind of stuff. There is certainly a little bit of anxiety for those first few corners to kind of get rolling and get used to things. At the same time, everybody is going to be ready to pounce.”

Cautions during the month of May will be different than normal. NASCAR announced on Tuesday that the following procedures will be in place:

The running order freezes at the time of the caution period and cars keep the positions they have as long as they beat the pace car off of pit road. If they do not beat the pace car, they lose a lap and restart at the back of the field. Cars pitting anytime other than their designated pit window or more than twice under caution also start at the tail of the field. 
The first car one lap down gets the free pass, but there will be no wave-around. 
The top 20 come to pit road, then the next 20 come on the following lap.
Before the restart, the field will be set to where it was frozen, with the exception of any cars that were sent to the rear of the field. 

Race coverage begins on FOX at 2:30 p.m. ET, with the race beginning at approximately 3:30 p.m. Also available on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The race distance is scheduled for  400.2 miles, or 293 laps. Stage 1 ends on Lap 90 and Stage 2 ends on Lap 185. There will be a competition caution on Lap 30.

Here's your starting lineup for The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway:

1Brad KeselowskiFord
2Alex BowmanChevrolet
3Matt DiBenedettoFord
4Kyle BuschToyota
5Aric AlmirolaFord
6Kevin HarvickFord
7Ryan BlaneyFord
8Jimmie JohnsonChevrolet
9Joey LoganoFord
10Denny HamlinToyota
11Chase ElliottChevrolet
12Matt KensethChevrolet
13Clint BowyerFord
14Cole CusterFord
15Martin Truex, Jr.Toyota
16Austin DillonChevrolet
17Bubba WallaceChevrolet
18William ByronChevrolet
19Corey LaJoieFord
20Erik JonesToyota
21Ryan NewmanFord
22Kurt BuschChevrolet
23Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.Chevrolet
24Chris BuescherFord
25Ryan PreeceChevrolet
26Garrett SmithleyChevrolet
27Quin HouffChevrolet
28Christopher BellToyota
29Tyler ReddickChevrolet
30J.J. YeleyFord
31Michael McDowellFord
32Joey GaseFord
33Ty DillonChevrolet
34John Hunter NemechekFord
35Brennan PooleChevrolet
36Reed SorensonChevrolet
37Daniel SuarezToyota
38Timmy HillToyota
39B.J. McLeodChevrolet
40Josh BilickiChevrolet

Drivers, start your engines! NASCAR returns to the track Drivers, start your engines! NASCAR returns to the track Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Saturday, May 16, 2020 Rating: 5