NASCAR is in for a double treat in 2020. Already, the sport’s announcement of its return to on-track competition in mid-May is leaving the drivers, the teams and the fans excited amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, two notable veterans, both of whom entered 2020 with distinct mindsets, are set to establish comeback stories of their own for the remainder of this season: Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth.
Flashback three months ago, where Newman was leading in the final straightaway of the Daytona 500. For a moment, it appeared that the veteran from South Bend, IN, was en route to a breakout start to his second season with Roush Fenway Racing by winning his second career Harley J. Earl Trophy.
Then, the near-excitement was overturned by the near-disaster as Newman was turned by Ryan Blaney into the outside wall and rolled upside down. Then, he was launched into the air after being hit by Corey LaJoie on the driver’s side before coming down and sliding on his roof in a trail of sparks. It was a wreck that left the racing community frozen, sending thoughtful wishes and anxiously awaiting the fate of Newman’s condition, who was extricated from his demolished car and transported to a local hospital.
Two days later, to the delight of everyone, there was the photo posted from Roush Fenway Racing of Newman exiting the Halifax Medical Center and walking alongside his two daughters. It was a photo that not only eased the pain and anxiety of many but encapsulated the success of the safety enhancements made in the modern era of NASCAR and the endless efforts made from every crew member in keeping their drivers both competitive and safe when racing. The photo also exemplified Newman’s endless grit that he has exhibited throughout his racing career when recovering from previous harrowing wrecks to focus toward upcoming races and getting stronger and better than ever.
Should Newman return to victory lane and qualify for the postseason, it would not mark the only time when NASCAR has seen a competitor rallying from an injury. A notable example includes Kyle Busch, rallying from missing the first 11 Cup races of the season due to a compound fracture and injuring both of his legs in a wreck at Daytona to win four races in the summer stretch and claim his first Cup championship in 2015 with a win in the finale at Homestead. In addition, the following year, Tony Stewart missed the first eight races of the season after fracturing his lumbar vertebra in an off-season buggy accident, but averaged a finishing result of 17.2 in the final 18 regular-season races, including scoring a triumphant win at Sonoma, to make the postseason in his 18th and final season of NASCAR competition. Finally, Denny Hamlin fractured his vertebra after being involved in a last-lap skirmish with Joey Logano at Fontana in 2013, an injury that made him sit out four races. Once he recovered and returned, he did not acquire enough consistent finishes to make the postseason. Nonetheless, he ended the season on a positive by winning the finale at Homestead, which gave him extra momentum for 2014 and beyond.
With the veteran cleared to return to racing, Newman’s road to a comeback begins at Darlington Raceway, a track where he has earned up-and-down results with an average finish of 12.57 and a runner-up finish in 2002. To Newman’s benefit, Roush’s entries have won at Darlington five times, but none since 2006. One thing is for certain. Newman is a hard-core racer and will not hesitate nor let his injuries prevent him from racing back into winning contention as he nearly accomplished at Daytona.
Then, there is Matt Kenseth. A return that no one, not even the former Cup Series champion himself, expected at the drop of the first green flag of the 2020 season. At that time, returning to NASCAR was not remotely on his radar.
Everything, however, changed in April when prominent star Kyle Larson was dismissed from Chip Ganassi Racing for uttering a racial slur during a live iRacing event. Two weeks later, when Kenseth was presented with the opportunity to assume the reins of Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet, it was an opportunity that he could not resist in reigniting his illustrious career that spans over 20 years.
Kenseth’s role as a substitute driver is also a move that is widely familiar in NASCAR. The most notable example was four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon in 2016, when he subbed for Dale Earnhardt Jr., recovering from concussion-like symptoms. While sharing Earnhardt’s ride with future Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman, Gordon earned an average finish of 13.86 in eight races and two top-10 finishes, including a sixth-place result at Martinsville in what was his 805th and final Cup start to date.
There is a challenge for Kenseth at hand as he returns. While Ganassi’s No. 42 team has earned an average finish of 11.0 through the first four races of 2020, Kenseth has not raced since November 2018 at Homestead, where he was a part-time competitor for Roush Fenway Racing, and has not won since November 2017 at Phoenix with Joe Gibbs Racing. This will also be Kenseth’s first time racing a Chevrolet in NASCAR since the 2001 Xfinity Series season.
The good news for Kenseth is that in the last six years, when Kyle Larson raced at Darlington, the No. 42 team led 500 laps and earned an average result of 6.67, including a second-place result last September. In the 25 Darlington races that Kenseth has driven, he has averaged a result of 15.8, which includes his lone win at the track in 2013. He also has three Xfinity Series wins at the historic venue. In addition, in his final two races of 2018, Kenseth scored top-10 results, which should give the driver confidence to slowly pick himself and the team back up into competitive form and toward a bright future.
With the season’s return approaching, two veterans representing two distinct teams and with two distinct approaches for this season aim to pick off where they last started off and conclude 2020 with comeback stories of their own and the burning desire to win and be competitive again.