After a two-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The NASCAR Cup Series returns to an actual track on Sunday afternoon with The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina.
The 293-lap, 400-mile race at the historic 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval track-with-two-nicknames, ‘The Lady in Black’, and ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame’, will mark the fifth event on the 2020 schedule and the first of four Cup races slated in the next 11 days.
Interestingly, cars and drivers will hit Darlington’s turn 1 at speed with no practice, no qualifying, and no support series. That also means no rubber down laid down by laps from those sessions.
For Matt Kenseth—racing for the first time since 2018 with a new-to-him team—the no-prep start should be doubly exciting.
Since he hasn’t dropped the “N-word” (at least in public), Kenseth will take over driving the # 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Camaro when racing resumes this Sunday with 400 miles at Darlington. Previous #42 driver Kyle Larson is presumably seeking how to rebuild a career in shambles.
“Chad (crew chief Johnston) assures me it’s (the car’s) going to be perfect,” Kenseth laughed. “I leave that job to him, the engineers and everyone here at CGR. They’ve ran really well at Darlington in the last two years, so I’m thinking they’re probably not going to veer too far off of that. I think you’ll run those first thirty laps and you’ll get kind of the extended caution there to be able to make some small adjustments and go from there. So, I don’t think it’s really different from what they ran there last year or maybe even the year before.”
Chad Knaus, crew chief of the # 24 Camaro driven by William Byron, claims to have had no physical contact with his car or crew up until Thursday. “I haven’t seen the race car at all,” said Knaus.“Nope, haven’t seen it or touched it. Nothing. “That’s the recommendation by NASCAR for the traveling teams to stay as isolated as they can and try to keep everybody at the race track as healthy as we can and that’s the protocol we put into place and that’s what we’ve been abiding by.
“It’s not easy, man. We obviously used last year as a baseline. 2019 was a solid race for us at Darlington. We qualified on the pole. We raced really well. We lost some track position early and we kind of ran around seventh most of the day until the end when we were caught-up in an accident. So, we used that as a baseline.
“Obviously the Camaro was a new beast for us, so we had a really good race in Las Vegas. Our teammates had a really good run in Fontana. So we took the data from there and applied those offsets to the best of our ability and where we feel like the characteristics are going to be when we go to Darlington and kind of came up with what it was; the derivative of 2019 with a little bit of what we’ve learned so far in the mix.”
We’re all in this together, indeed. Every team will be in the same sort of boat when they hit turn 1.
“It will be exciting to say the least,” said Kenseth’s teammate Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 Camaro. “When I ran the Indianapolis 500 a few years ago, everybody was hyped up and going three-wide into turn one. It’s because the whole month of practice, preparation, and drafting, you are only doing it with a few cars at a time. This will be the same thing for us. It’s a group of cars, group of professionals, all barreling down into turn one with months of built up anxiety and excitement. Everybody knows it. Everybody can feel it. And I hope everybody uses their best judgement, because we all know there is going to be a competition caution for everybody to check their settings with the front splitter, cambers, and the set-up balances. My approach is that we all need to drive down there at an 80% level and then ramp up our percentage of aggressiveness as the race moves forward.”
With today’s simulators getting so much press, one would think that a formerly retired (although he never used that word) driver like Kenseth would have been burning up some bandwith in recent days, weeks, or months. Hardly.
“About fifteen minutes or so,” said Kenseth. “There are a lot of good things about it, but it’s still not exactly the racecar. I’ve been doing as much as I can, as far as being prepared, looking at data and reading notes. Going to the simulator was one of those boxes that I wanted to check. So, I did go over there to drive it and make a few runs at Darlington to just kind of drive it, feel comfortable and all that stuff. I didn’t really spend an extended period of time there because, in my mind, it’s still not like driving the racecar. There are a lot of things that are very similar, but a lot of things that are different as well.
“Nobody has been in a car in a while; certainly, it’s been longer for me. I think the biggest difference for me, also, is that I haven’t driven these racecars or for this team. 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. Restarts are very important, track position is very important and you always want to get what you can get when you can get it. So, I don’t expect people to be taking it real easy or maybe giving you a bunch of extra room or anything like that. You certainly don’t expect any kind of special treatment.
“Things change rapidly (at Darlington). I think Darlington and, when Rockingham was still on the schedule, those tracks down there in that part of the state with all the sand and the environment seem to change more than most tracks that we go to from year to year. Darlington has obviously changed a lot during the years. There has been a re-pave in between there and certainly keeps getting bumpier and all that kind of stuff.
“But I think the cars, setups, rules and all that stuff seem to change probably faster than a lot of the tracks change. So, it’s a little different every time you go down. I don’t know that I have a good comparison for a day race in May compared to a summer race in September. It sounds like it’s going to be the first hot day of year on Sunday. It sounds like it’s going to get up to 90 degrees the last time I looked and that’s about the same that it usually is when we’re down there Labor Day weekend. I don’t really anticipate it being that much different at the start of the race, but it’ll certainly still be light by the end of the race. So, I think the end of the race will be different than the second one. I think it changes a little more at night. I think it picks up speed and changes balance just a little bit.”
“For this race, I want everybody to look at how bleached-out the asphalt will look when we turn on that broadcast on Sunday,” said Busch. “You are going to look and go, ‘Wow, I don’t even recognize the racetrack,’ and that is because there has been no track activity. No Xfinity Series, no Trucks, and nobody that put any kind of rubber down from the practice sessions. So, the whole thing will be a whole different look. It will get built up with rubber and it will be slicker in the daytime and turns 1 and 2 will have the sun beating down on it hard. And looking at the weather forecast, it’s going to be in the upper 80s. So, this will be a big challenge right off the bat. It’s a 400-miler, everybody’s physical level will be tested, mental level, and then adjusting to track conditions. This on a scale of 1-10 is a 9.5 to start off with.”
The previously parked Kenseth is not sure what the future holds for him.
“Right now, I’m not really looking too far beyond Sunday, to be totally honest with you. Certainly, the learning curve is going to be steep. I know being out of the car that long, starting with a different team and piling on top of 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. So, I’m really looking forward to getting to the track.
“I really like this group of guys, the cars look nice, the Camaro looks like they’re really fast, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity, I just know that it’s going to be a big challenge. I’m going to have to work hard and do my best to try and take advantage of the opportunity.”
“I think Matt is up for the challenge,” added Busch. “It’s a unique set of circumstances for him, as well as everybody. For Matt to not be in a car for a longer duration than most of us, it will be different with a new team and new communication over the radio. He has gone through the steps with Ganassi and with Chevrolet in the simulator to make some laps and hear his crew chief on the radio and to do things in the virtual aspect. But again, nothing translates to the real thing in feeling the G forces and being out there with the competitors.
“He has the option to start in the seventh-place position, or wherever the random draw goes for the top-12 in points. So, there is that question of whether he wants to drop to the back and kind of ease into it. But Matt is a champion, a true professional, and I am excited to work with him as we move forward.
“For us to have been teammates years ago, that already helps us cross over a bridge that sometimes youneed to spend time on. His work ethic, his drive and also the chance here for this opportunity is to use his experience and his wisdom to help a whole new group of guys on that 42 car. Those are the things that I did with the 1 car and it’s a matter of raising the bar for everybody. So, yes, Matt is going to look for that opportunity to do it when there is the right time to implement certain things. For the two of us, I hope quicker rather than later we get in this sync, side-by-side, pushing as well with General Motors and what we can do with Chevrolet, to make Ganassi a winner week in and week out.”
Busch feels like it’s not just drivers like him and Kenseth under the microscope this weekend, but the whole sport. “I feel like this is a genuine opportunity for many different reasons. All sports fans, NASCAR fans, the drivers, and the sanctioning body – we are all looking forward to it. At the end of the day, we are hopeful that this is a light at the end of the tunnel that people can see. It is a beacon that is shining out there saying this is a professional sport with competitors and millions of dollars in TV and team sponsorships that create a sense of balance. Something that says, ‘if they can do it, we can do it’. But other sports have many other hurdles that they have to overcome. For us, it’s exciting that we have our chance to go out there and compete. Whether it is a stage to stand on or not, you have to block out all that pressure. I am looking forward to trying to grab that first checkered flag in two months.”
In compliance with the pandemic guidelines, The Real Heroes 400 will run without spectators, but you can view the live competition on Sunday, May 17th, at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.