Newman, Kenseth returns headline NASCAR's Darlington restart
- After a two-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR returns on Sunday with Ryan Newman's comeback the major talking point.
NASCAR drivers admit they aren't quite sure what to expect when they step into a race car for the first time in over two months for Sunday's Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway, but they're all eager for the opportunity.
Two in particular are especially grateful for a second chance.
The Real Heroes 400 marks the resumption of a 2020 season put on hold by the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, as well as the return of Ryan Newman from an horrific final-lap crash in February's Daytona 500 that briefly put the Roush Fenway Racing driver's career – and life – in limbo.
Newman miraculously escaped the spectacular wreck – in which his car went airborne and flipped several times before landing on its hood after being hit from behind by Ryan Blaney – with a bruised brain but no permanent damage. The 18-time Cup Series winner was medically cleared in late April and will start 21st following a random draw used to determine post positioning.
"I'm so excited and thankful to be healthy, to get back into the race car," he said. "I am thankful for all the people and support that have prayed for me and given me a multitude of miracles."
Matt Kenseth will be making a comeback of a different sort when he gets behind the wheel of Chip Ganassi Racing's No. 42 Chevrolet for his first Cup Series start since the 2018 season finale. The 2003 champion was lured out of retirement to replace Kyle Larson, fired by CGR last month after being caught using a racial slur during an iRacing event.
"Certainly, the learning curve is going to be steep," said Kenseth, the oldest driver in Sunday's field at age 48. "I know being out of the car that long, starting with a different team and piling on top of that not being able to practice for the foreseeable future, or testing and anything like that, is going to be very challenging.
"But, I'm really excited. I have to admit, I'm just as excited as I've been to go racing in many, many years. I'm really looking forward to getting to the track."
Kenseth will start 12th in his return, with Brad Keselowski earning the pole in the blind draw and Alex Bowman joining him on the front row. Current points leader Kevin Harvick will start sixth and Joey Logano, winner of two of the four Cup Series races prior to this season's suspension in March, drew post nine.
The Real Heroes 400, named in honour of healthcare workers currently taking part in the fight against COVID-19, will be the first of two spectator-free Cup Series events held at Darlington in four days as part of NASCAR's revised schedule. Two more will take place at Charlotte within a four-day span later in May, headlined by the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 in its traditional Memorial Day weekend slot.
The Charlotte races will also be conducted without fans in attendance, as will a rescheduled race in Bristol, Tenn. on May 31 and four just-announced Cup Series events in June to be held at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. The Homestead races will take place on consecutive days on June 13 and 14.
Competing without fans will be an adjustment for drivers, as will racing competitively off a two-month layoff without having the benefit of practice time or a qualification round.
"I think it's going to be a little tough jumping back into the swing of things after, I think I counted 62 days off," said Blaney. "But I feel like everyone will be pretty responsible getting going, being smart."
So many people to thank throughout COVID-19, but especially our frontline workers. We can’t thank you enough for all you’re doing. This weekend, we race for you.#TheRealHeroes // #NASCARIsBack pic.twitter.com/ucvboA4gAv— Ryan Newman (@RyanJNewman) May 14, 2020