It will have been 10 weeks since NASCAR last was in action when the Cup Series takes the green flag Sunday at Darlington Raceway. While most of the sports world remains idle during the COVID-19 crisis, NASCAR will be one of the first to return to competition. It will come under much scrutiny and without fans as officials implement widespread health and safety protocols in hopes of keeping everyone safe.
NASCAR has not raced at the iconic South Carolina track in May since 2013, with the annual Labor Day weekend Southern 500 the lone scheduled date at Darlington. But in trying to keep teams as close to the sport’s Charlotte base as possible, “The Track Too Tough to Tame” became a viable option to restart the NASCAR season. Sunday will be the first of two points-paying Cup races at the track in four days, with a return engagement set Wednesday as NASCAR looks to make up seven lost dates.
The degree of difficulty is already steep, since teams weren’t planning on competing at Darlington until late summer. The 1.366-mile oval track is one of the most singular on the schedule, with a completely different set of turns and a rough racing surface among its characteristics.
But in addition to working on different setups than anticipated at this stage of the year, no practice or qualifying will be done to help dial cars in for Sunday’s race. The field will be lined up based on point standings, and when the green flag flies, drivers will have their first taste of a speed track team coming in race conditions.
Despite the many variables, Sunday’s field includes definite favorites with strong odds to successfully kick off NASCAR’s return.
Busch has only one Darlington Cup Series win, in 2008, but has finished 11th or better in the last 10 races at the track. Busch has finished second and third over the last three Darlington races and has led 716 laps at the track, the most of any active driver. The defending Cup Series champion is off to a slow start by his lofty expectations, going winless in the four races so far in 2020, but Busch does have a pair of top-five performances in the book.
One of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also has a sparkling Darlington record. Hamlin is a two-time Darlington winner in 14 career starts and has finished in the top five in 11 races at the track for an average finish of 7.8. Hamlin started the year by winning the Daytona 500 in February and has two top-10 finishes in the opening quartet of races.
It’s way early in the interrupted campaign, but Harvick is the series point leader and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all four races to date. Harvick has a solid Darlington record, as he has finished in the top 10 in the last seven races there, including a win in 2014. He has led 567 laps over the last 10 races at Darlington, twice breaking the 200-laps-at-the-front-of-the-field barrier.
The Team Penske driver has four top-10s in the last five races at Darlington, including a win in 2018. Keselowski is also off to a decent start in 2020, with a pair of top-10s and a 7.7 average finish in the last three races this year. He has an average Darlington finish of 11.1 dating to 2011.