After weeks of strictly racing on simulator rigs in virtual iRacing events, NASCAR Cup Series drivers will return to action on Sunday afternoon for their first race in actual cars since the checkered flag fell on the Fan Shield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8, 2020. And not only will the drivers and crews be back on track for the first time in over two months, but they will be taking on perhaps the most difficult of challenges on the entire circuit.
Darlington Raceway with its narrow racing groove and worn surface has rightfully earned the moniker of “Too Tough to Tame”. As one of NASCAR’s oldest venues, this 1.366-mile oddly shaped layout has been bedeviling racers for decades and will look to once again on Sunday.
And to make matters worse for the competitors, there will be no practice sessions to fine tune the cars in order to achieve the best possible setups. Drivers will not be able to log laps prior to the race in order to find their rhythm around the track that took on the shape of an egg because the designer did not want to disturb a pond located just outside of the facility.
Because of precautions being used due to the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR has opted to make this event dubbed “The Real Heroes 400” into a one-day show with as little potential for person-to-person contact as possible. That brought about the decision to have no practice sessions and no qualifying for this race.
The starting lineup was determined by a blind draw with drivers aligned in groups of twelve based on the car owners point standings. So literally, their first full speed lap on the track for the entire weekend will come Sunday when the green flag waves to start the 400-mail affair.
Starting Lineup: 1. Brad Keselowski, 2. Alex Bowman, 3. Matt DiBenedetto, 4. Kyle Busch, 5. Aric Almirola, 6. Kevin Harvick, 7. Ryan Blaney, 8. Jimmie Johnson, 9. Joey Logano, 10. Denny Hamlin, 11. Chase Elliott, 12. Matt Kenseth, 13. Clint Bowyer, 14. Cole Custer, 15. Martin Truex, Jr., 16. Austin Dillon, 17. Bubba Wallace, 18. William Byron, 19. Corey Lajoie, 20. Erik Jones, 21. Ryan Newman, 22. Kurt Busch, 23. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., 24. Chris Buescher, 25. Ryan Preece, 26. Garrett Smithley, 27. Quin Houff, 28. Christopher Bell, 29. Tyler Reddick, 30. J.J. Yeley, 31. Michael McDowell, 32. Joey Gase, 33. Ty Dillon, 34. John Hunter Nemechek, 35. Brennan Poole, 36. Reed Sorenson, 37. Daniel Suarez, 38. Timmy Hill, 39. B.J. McLeod, 40. Josh Bilicki
As stated earlier, this track has an abrasive and worn surface that has been known to wreak havoc on tires and setups for as long as anyone can remember. With crew chiefs setting up the cars based entirely from notes and with no on-track feedback from the drivers, there will likely be a few who will hit the setup just right in the early section of the race while others will be way off.
The narrow groove of the track has given even the most legendary of drivers headaches as they have found themselves quickly running out of racing room and earning a so-called “Darlington Stripe” when they have bounced off of the outside walls. It would be hard to imagine that this will not be the case on Sunday as well.
Crews will, of course, adjust on their cars during pit stops throughout the course of the race. But will it be too late for some who may have been so far off the pace early that they dug themselves into an inescapable hole?
Perhaps some of those considered to be championship contending teams will be among the usual front runners who miss the early setups and suffer damage or fall well behind in the early going. Maybe a team that doesn’t always contend for wins will hit the perfect setup during the initial laps and emerge as a serious threat for victory by not having to make major adjustments throughout the race.
There could be the possibility of a significant upset coming out of this race. Also, however, there could be the possibility of a top team nailing the perfect setup early on based on their notes and engineering data that will allow one of the sport’s top stars to thoroughly thrash the competition.
The early laps of The Real Heroes 400 will be among the most critical early laps of any race in recent NASCAR history. Not only will they signify the return of the sport from the shutdowns brought on by the spread of COVID-19 but they will also play a very significant role in determining how this points-paying race will play out over the full course of its 400-mile distance.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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