NASCAR returns to the track for the first time since early March for its first race since the COVID-19 outbreak shut down the sports world.
The Cup Series makes its best effort to return to some semblance of normalcy by holding its first races in more than two months at Darlington Raceway, host to a 293-lap event Sunday, The Real Heroes 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the Toyota 500 on Wednesday (6 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The events will be held without fans in attendance and with the track’s property restricted to only a limited group of essential personnel.
With a tight schedule of racing on tap to round out the month of May, here’s a primer with helpful information before stock-car racing resumes at the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
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Darlington Raceway is a 1.366-mile track that opened as NASCAR’s first superspeedway in 1950. The track’s last repaving project was completed in 2008. The start-finish line was relocated from what was the frontstretch to the former backstraight in 1997.
The track features an oblong, egg-shaped layout, with a wider arc through Turns 1 and 2 than the tighter Turns 3 and 4. Turns 1 and 2 are banked at 25 degrees, while Turns 3 and 4 feature 23-degree banking. Both the frontstretch and backstraight measure 1,229 feet with minimal banking.
The next two events will be the 117th and 118th for the NASCAR Cup Series at the historic South Carolina track. Darlington’s first winner was Johnny Mantz, who topped a 75-car field in the 1950 Southern 500 on Labor Day in a time of 6 hours, 38 minutes. The margin of victory for his Plymouth was nine laps over runner-up Fireball Roberts.
Sunday, May 17: Stage 1 is set to end at Lap 90, Stage 2 at Lap 185, and the final stage slated to conclude on Lap 293.
Wednesday, May 20: Stage 1 is set to end at Lap 60, Stage 2 on Lap 125, with the full distance set for Lap 228.
Since the next two events will be held without practice or qualifying, NASCAR officials will set the starting lineups and determine pit-stall selection based on a mix of factors, including Cup Series owners points, a tiered structure of random draws and previous results.
See the full breakdown here detailing lineup procedures for all three NASCAR national series under the condensed race-day procedures.
The 2020 NASCAR rules package for intermediate-sized tracks will be in effect with a tapered spacer used to set a target of 550 horsepower. The cars will use aero ducts in addition to other aerodynamic devices to increase downforce.
As the Cup Series braces for two Darlington events without practice or qualifying, the first race back will start without any rubber worked into the track’s abrasive surface. That should mean abnormally high wear for the Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials, especially in the first few pit-stop cycles before the asphalt begins to take rubber.
Cup Series teams will be allotted 12 sets of tires for the longer Sunday race and nine sets for the Wednesday event.
The tire features the same compound and construction that was scheduled to be used March 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway before that event was postponed. Tires that were earmarked for that race weekend will be used at Darlington.
“Getting back to racing and doing so at Darlington is a great feeling,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “We’ll come out of the gate by testing teams with one of the most grueling challenges in NASCAR, with the abrasive track surface and tight configuration of ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame.’ Our whole sport has had to become very nimble in coming up with a plan to safely get back to the track. Schedules will change, as will the way we all do business at the race track in the near future, but NASCAR as a sport has always been known for being innovative and able to adapt to ever-changing conditions. We will get back to the track this week and will put on great races for our fans. We’re glad to play a part in leading the way back for professional sports in the country and doing so in a safe, competitive and entertaining manner.”
STATS TO KNOW
— The track has held a traditional Labor Day spot on the schedule since 2015, but two new Cup Series events for May were created at Darlington, a venue within driving distance to the Charlotte-area hub for the NASCAR industry. Coronavirus restrictions have begun to loosen, but race officials have opted for one-day events that minimize travel and at-track exposure for essential personnel. The last time the raceway held a springtime event was April 2014, when Kevin Harvick dominated by leading 238 of 374 laps in his lone Darlington win.
— Joe Gibbs Racing and its affiliated teams have won five of the last seven Darlington events — all with different drivers. Matt Kenseth, who returns to competition Sunday for the first time since 2018, kicked off that string of success in 2013. He was followed by JGR-associated drivers Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016), Denny Hamlin (2017) and Erik Jones (2019). Toyota’s recent run there has impressed, but Chevrolet leads all automakers with 41 Darlington wins in NASCAR’s top division.
— Kenseth takes over the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet starting Sunday, but his return isn’t the only one happening at Darlington. Ryan Newman has been medically cleared to come back to the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford after his recovery from serious injuries in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in February. Newman missed the last three races during his recovery time. Kenseth’s most recent Cup start was also behind the wheel of Jack Roush’s No. 6, which he drove in 15 races in 2018.
— Kevin Harvick is the only driver to score top-10 finishes in all four Cup Series races so far this season. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran has a similarly steady streak at Darlington, where he has placed among the top 10 in seven consecutive races.
— The last time NASCAR’s top series embarked on a schedule of four races in an 11-day span came in August 1971. Richard Petty swept all four, winning at the Albany-Saratoga Fairgrounds; Islip, New York.; Trenton, New Jersey; and Nashville on the way to his third of seven series championships.
Source: Racing Insights
Tune in to television coverage from Darlington Raceway on FOX (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET), FS1 (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET) and the FOX Sports App both days. For complete radio coverage, listen in to MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on-air.
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For a more interactive experience, head over to NASCAR.com or the NASCAR app to check out an enhanced Race Center, live Lap-by-Lap coverage, the customizable live leaderboard with Scanner (which is FREE for both races), and the return of Drive (featuring in-car cameras).
2019 RACE WINNER
Darlington Raceway did not host events last May, but Erik Jones made the track’s most recent event on Labor Day a memorable moment. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver rose into contention late and led 79 of 367 laps to notch his second career Cup Series win.
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ACTIVE DARLINGTON WINNERS
Jimmie Johnson (three); Denny Hamlin (two); Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. (one each).