Wash. Rinse. Repeat. NASCAR returns to the Darlington Raceway track just three days after ending a 10-week hiatus there Sunday. The sanctioning body has put together an aggressive schedule for its return in hopes of making up every race that was postponed during the COVID-19 shutdown.
While the rest of the sports world was watching, NASCAR pulled off the Darlington event with no fans in attendance and with a detailed set of safety and health protocols in place. The teams had no practice or qualifying, and drivers turned their first competitive laps in more than two months when the green flag flew. Despite some concern about rust and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spin and accident on the first lap, The Real Heroes 400 settled into a typical Darlington race that necessitated patience and a fast car before Kevin Harvick pulled into Victory Lane.
Wednesday night’s Darlington encore will have two caveats attached to the Toyota 500. The race will be the first scheduled midweek prime-time Cup race in NASCAR’s long history. The 7:30 p.m. ET start means Darlington’s rough and abrasive surface around its 1.333-mile layout will have a much different grip level from what was in play during most of last weekend’s race run in relatively sunny and warm conditions.
The starting lineup is also unique. With no qualifying, the top 20 positions will be inverted from Sunday’s finish. That puts Harvick back in the 10th row and moves 19th- and 20th-place finishers Ty Dillon and Ryan Preece to the front. The race is shorter at 311 miles, so patience might be a little thinner as drivers force the issue to make up spots knowing they’ll have less time to do so.
Many teams are bringing back the same cars Wednesday night. They will make some minor setup adjustments after what was learned Sunday. It all sets up an intriguing dynamic but one in which a number of favorites are poised to do well.
Harvick’s win Sunday gave him 50 Cup Series victories and put the Stewart-Haas Racing driver in a select group of just 14 to reach that plateau. Harvick is the only driver in the series to have finished in the top 10 in all five races run in 2020. Harvick’s already stellar Darlington career numbers got even better as he stretched his streak of top-10 finishes to eight and added a second win to his resume. Harvick’s 159 laps led Sunday made it 726 at the front of the field at Darlington over the last 11 races at the track.
Elliott was forced to rebound from an early issue Sunday to score a top-five finish. He was caught speeding on pit road on Lap 93, and after serving the penalty, he roared back to the front of the field to take the checkered flag fourth. While he has won at Darlington in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Elliott scored his best career Cup Series finish at the track Sunday and has finished in the top 10 in the last three 2020 races. Even with issues to teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron, his Hendrick Motorsports team looked very strong.
This year’s Daytona 500 winner was stout again at Darlington. Hamlin’s fifth-place effort was the veteran’s 12th top-10 finish in 15 starts at the track. He was one of three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers to finish in the top 10.
Another veteran who used his Darlington experience to notch a solid performance, Busch finished third. He has been inside the top 10 in the last three races of 2020. He has four top-five and 14 top-10 Darlington finishes in his Cup Series career.