While Kevin Harvick notched a milestone victory of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, veterans Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth achieved a task of their own that felt like a win. By finishing in the top 15 and completing all 400 miles, (293 laps), both Cup veterans took their first of three steps needed to be post-season eligible. They also took the first step in rejuvenating their successful careers after missing the opening races to a bizarre season.
When NASCAR returned to Darlington on Sunday, it had been 71 days since the last checkered flag flew at Phoenix Raceway. The last time Matt Kenseth raced in a Cup car was 547 days ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2018. In that race, he completed his part-time stint with Roush Fenway Racing with a top-10 result. Since then, he had no racing plans on his agenda. An unexpected opportunity, however, presented itself in April to drive Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro for the remainder of the 2020 season when Kyle Larson was suspended for using a racial slur during an iRacing event.
In Kenseth’s first race since 2018, he started 12th based on a random draw and spent the bulk of the day inside the top 15 to top 20, watching from a distance as his teammate Kurt Busch, fellow competitors and a pair of youngsters duked it out for the win. When the checkered flag flew, Kenseth made a late charge to maintain the 10th position on track for his 330th top-10 career result, his 12th at Darlington and to place CGR’s No. 42 Chevrolet team in the top 10 in six of the last seven Darlington events.
While Kenseth’s return was not explosive nor dominant compared to winner Kevin Harvick, it was a result that left the former Cup Series champion satisfied with his result in assessing the competitiveness and grip levels of the current Cup cars with his new team while planning for the next scheduled event at Darlington on Wednesday, May 20. It also left him satisfied in returning behind the wheel of a stock car and giving him a sense of rejuvenating his past magic and contending for his second Cup title despite missing the first five races of the 2020 season.
Like Kenseth, Newman finished in the top 10 in his previous Cup start that goes back to the Daytona 500. His result, however, was long overshadowed by his horrific last-lap accident that sent him to the hospital and forced him to miss the next four races while recovering from his injuries. When Sunday’s race at Darlington arrived and Newman was cleared to return, it had been 91 days since he last climbed into his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang.
Starting 21st, Newman’s return was quiet as he spent the majority of the event racing inside the top 20. He earned a top-10 result, ninth, in the first stage and collected valuable bonus points needed in his quest to make this year’s playoffs. Under the stage break, however, Newman was caught speeding on pit road that sent him to the rear of the field. While Newman was able to rally from his early miscue, another curveball was tossed at him. With 41 laps remaining, Newman spun below the apron in Turn 1 caused by a flat right-rear tire initiated two corners earlier to draw a late caution. With the veteran able to continue with no significant damage, Newman was able to remain inside the top 20 in the closing laps. He made a late pass on Clint Bowyer to move into 15th place, which he was able to maintain after taking the checkered flag.
The result left the former Daytona 500 champion satisfied in completing his first race since surviving one of NASCAR’s most horrific wrecks in history and in the sanctioning body’s efforts in resuming the season amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. It also gave him a confidence booster in igniting a comeback story of his career and positioning himself to be eligible for his first Cup crown.
Kenseth and Newman will join their fellow NASCAR Cup Series competitors in returning for a second race at Darlington Raceway on May 20 followed by Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24.