When the green flag waved and 40 of NASCAR’s elite made their first Cup Series start since the first week of March, seven made their first premier series start at Darlington Raceway, (six were rookies). When the checkered flag waved, two were able to not only survive the tricky, distinct-shaped corners of the 1.366-mile surface. They earned strong top-10 results in their season-long quest for the Rookie-of-the-Year title: Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek.
For Reddick, the speed was displayed on track for the California native and his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team through the first four races of his rookie Cup campaign. It was only a matter of sealing a satisfactory performance with a satisfactory result. Starting 29th on a random draw for Sunday’s race at Darlington, the former Xfinity Series champion wasted no time working his way methodically toward the front against NASCAR’s elite. He finished eighth in the first stage to earn additional bonus points toward the playoffs and ran inside the top 10 for the majority of the race.
Then, a near disaster moment occurred on Lap 153, when a piece of ad debris from a banner wall in Turn 3 caught the right-front end of Reddick’s Chevrolet after being previously struck by eventual winner Kevin Harvick. It also remained stuck on Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer’s cars for a handful of laps. The debris remained on Reddick’s car for another lap before the event’s sixth caution flag was displayed. Under the pit stop, Reddick’s crew was able to remove the debris, but he restarted at the rear of the field due to a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire violation.
Despite the miscue, the driver of RCR’s No. 8 Chevrolet was able to utilize the horsepower to work his way back inside the top 10, where he remained for the rest of the race despite enduring two restarts in the final stage. When the checkered flag flew, Reddick notched a career-best seventh-place in his seventh Cup start.
The performance was the best for a rookie candidate at Darlington since Erik Jones finished fifth in 2017 and Kyle Larson finished eighth in 2014. It also marked Reddick’s second top-10 career result, his first since finishing ninth at Kansas in May 2019, and it gave him a resourceful insight in improving for the next Darlington event while maintaining his consistency for the remainder of his rookie season.
While Reddick was beaming about his performance, so, too, was John Hunter Nemechek on a day where he turned his uneventful day of lemons into lemonade. Nemechek started his day in 34th and the majority of his race was mired with handling issues. After posting finishes in the high-20s from the first two stages, Nemechek’s race started to improve in the final stage, where he utilized consistency to work his way inside the top 15. Over the course of the final two restarts, Nemechek moved into the top 10 and was able to outrun Matt Kenseth to finish ninth for his first top-10 result in his eighth Cup start.
The last time a Front Row Motorsports operation finished in the top 10 was when Michael McDowell finished fifth at Talladega in October 2019. This, however, marked the team’s first top-10 result on a non-superspeedway result since Chris Buescher finished fifth at Bristol in August 2016 and their 20th career top-10 result. The result gave the third-generation driver from Mooresville, N.C., something to smile about and scan ahead for improvement toward the upcoming races in his rookie season.
The remaining rookies that include Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Brennan Poole and Quin Houff finished 22nd, 24th, 27th and 36th, respectively. Josh Bilicki, who made his first Cup start at Darlington, finished 34th.
The NASCAR Cup Series rookie class along with the veterans will return for a second race at Darlington Raceway on May 20 followed by Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24.