After 71 days away, NASCAR is back in action. On Sunday, the Cup Series kicked off the gauntlet of races with The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, the first race back since the season was paused in March due to COVID-19. From a whirlwind day for Hendrick Motorsports to pit strategy playing a key role in the final stage, the race saw Kevin Harvick take his 50th career victory and first of 2020.
After a random draw to determine the starting grid, Brad Keselowski claimed the pole alongside Alex Bowman; Harvick drew sixth. Kyle Busch, who drew fourth, was relegated to the rear of the field after failing pre-race inspection twice. Matt Kenseth, serving as Kyle Larson‘s replacement in Chip Ganassi Racing‘s #42, started twelfth. In twenty-first was Ryan Newman, racing for the first time since his scary Daytona 500 wreck in February.
It only took two corners of green-flag racing before the first caution came out when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun and hit the inside wall. Corey LaJoie and Martin Truex Jr. also sustained damage.
The race resumed on lap 6 with Keselowski leading Harvick. Due to the damage in the first-lap wreck, Truex began sinking from his fifteenth-place qualifying position, eventually bottoming at thirtieth by the lap 30 competition caution.
“19 got a hole in the nose on the lap 1 crash,” Truex’s former crew chief Cole Pearn tweeted. “Hence the big patch on the RS of the nose that clearly they can’t see from the TV booth regardless of how big it is.”
On the other hand, his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Busch slowly made his way through the field before reaching twenty-fifth at the yellow. B.J. McLeod, debuting his B.J. McLeod Motorsports team at the Cup level, exited the race with an engine failure on lap 14; at the time, his #78 was two laps down.
When the competition yellow came out, Keselowski led Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Hendrick drivers occupied the next four spots with Jimmie Johnson ahead of William Byron, Bowman, and Chase Elliott. Under the modified competition caution procedure for the upcoming races, the top twenty pitted first followed by the bottom half; drivers could also not lose positions when pitting unless they fail to beat the pace car off pit road.
Under the caution, Timmy Hill, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series champion, and Josh Bilicki, making Tommy Baldwin Racing‘s first Cup start since 2017, were penalised for having too many men over the wall on their stops. Quin Houff went to the garage to fix a fuel pump issue.
The green flag waved on lap 39 with Keselowski in front. A pair of Hendrick cars in Bowman and Johnson applied pressure on the leader before they cleared him on lap 45. Ten laps later, Byron joined his Hendrick allies at the front when he passed Keselowski for third.
With the green-checkered flag looming, the team-mates began encountering lapped traffic, which Johnson used to his advantage to take the lead from Bowman on lap 82. Due to worn tyres, Bowman eventually lost positions to Byron and Hamlin.
As he approached his first stage win since Pocono Raceway in July 2019, Johnson made contact with Chris Buescher exiting turn two, sending the former sideways into the inside wall. Byron instead took the stage victory.
“Gosh, what I would do to get that corner back,” Johnson said after being released from the infield care center. He was officially classified as finishing thirty-eighth, and will start thirty-seventh for Wednesday’s 500-km race.
Hamlin, Bowman, Harvick, Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Tyler Reddick, Newman, and Elliott recorded stage points.
Harvick, who had the first pit stall, was the first out of pit road ahead of Bowman. Newman and Elliott suffered speeding penalties on their stops. Shortly before the race, the field drove through pit road to check their speed limits, during which Elliott reported his car was faster in some sectors than others.
The second stage began on lap 98. Hendrick Motorsports’ day reached its nadir when Byron cut his right-rear tyre and hit the turn three wall, leading to a spin on lap 110. At the time of the caution, the team had gone from all four drivers in the top ten to just one in the top twenty in the span of 25 laps.
Bowman, the last man standing for Hendrick, restarted second behind Harvick on lap 116. Kurt Busch, who restarted fourth, jumped on Bowman to take second.
On lap 124, Daniel Suárez attempted to enter pit road but suffered a cut right rear and spun for the caution. Harvick and Busch exited pit road first to occupy the front row for the restart five laps later.
Shortly after green-flag racing resumed, Truex cracked the top ten. Slightly ahead of him, rookie Reddick continued his impressive day.
The sixth caution of the day came with bizarre circumstances. An adhesive Blue-Emu wall advertisement ripped off and stuck to Hamlin’s car, prompting him to draft Bowyer to remove the banner, which then flew to Reddick’s bumper. NASCAR elected to wave the yellow flag on lap 154 to clean it up. For Blue-Emu, it has been a bizarre 2020; the pain relieving cream manufacturer was embroiled in controversy after severing ties with Bubba Wallace when he rage-quit a Pro Invitational Series race. The company also sponsors Martinsville Speedway‘s night race, which was postponed due to the pandemic and is currently set for a Wednesday night race on 10 June.
Landon Cassill, who is sponsored by Blue-Emu, quipped he was not responsible for applying the banner.
During the yellow, Reddick and Almirola suffered uncontrolled tyre penalties. Harvick and Keselowski paced the grid to the restart on lap 161.
After eleven laps, Christopher Bell spun in turn four and hit the wall. Under yellow, a poor stop by Harvick’s crew dropped him seven spots, while J.J. Yeley briefly spent time in front after staying out before finally pitting to surrender the lead to Keselowski.
Keselowski and Truex led the field to the green with eight laps to go. The former led the remainder of the stage to take the win ahead of Bowman, Truex, Harvick, Bowyer, Busch, Ryan Preece, Joey Logano, Hamlin, and Erik Jones.
The final stage commenced with Bowman and Keselowski leading, though a strong restart elevated the latter to the front.
On lap 214, Buescher spun in turn one after colliding with Bell on the frontstretch. Logano was pitting to address a loose wheel when the caution came out, but avoided falling a lap down. To add to the oddities, a small patch of grass caught fire behind the billboards in turns one and two, which officials went to address during the yellow.
Lap 219 saw the next restart as Harvick led. Bowman took second from Keselowski and tried to chase the leader down, while Kenseth found himself racing for the top ten.
As the race progressed, the teams began preparing to manage tyre and fuel use. Using his Richard Childress Racing team’s Twitter account, Xfinity Series driver Anthony Alfredo explained tyre conservation “is going to be huge if it doesn’t come down to a late caution. Drivers are going to need to not wear their tires too much to have as much speed as possible late in the run. That means not being too aggressive early in a run.”
By lap 250, Bilicki was the first victim of fuel issues when he ran out, but was able to pit. Meanwhile, Busch moved into third after restarting tenth.
On lap 248, Newman slid in turn one; although it was not a complete spin, it was enough for NASCAR to call a caution. On Twitter, Pearn remarked Newman “probably shouldn’t take the Bubba Wallace strategy after that intentional spin”, alluding to Wallace being fined and penalised after spinning on purpose in last fall’s Texas Motor Speedway race.
Harvick and Bowman held the front row for the restart with 35 laps left. The two battled with Bowman on the inside line before Harvick won out.
After seven laps, Kyle Busch pitted for a loose wheel, causing him to lose a lap. As the race crossed the twenty-to-go mark, two notable faces in the top ten were rookies Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek, the latter having started the day in thirty-fourth.
Bowman could not catch Harvick as the points leader took his 50th career Cup win and second at Darlington (first at 2014). Reddick finished seven for his second career top-ten finish and his best run by two spots, while Nemechek’s ninth gave him his maiden premier series top ten. Nemechek’s run gave Front Row Motorsports its first top ten on a non-restrictor plate track since Buescher finished fifth at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016. Kenseth, racing for the first time since 2018, also enjoyed a top ten as he finished tenth.
Preece, who finished twentieth, will start Wednesday’s Toyota 500 on the pole.