NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Wins in NASCAR's Return

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Wins in NASCAR's Return

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick entered Sunday's The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway as one of the favorites, and his calm and consistent approach to the race paid off with his first victory of the season. He raced at the front for most of the afternoon, and ultimately held off Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch as he eased ahead to victory. Sunday's race was one with many unknowns after the season was halted after just four races. The teams had been off for what amounted to a normal offseason and were forced right back into action with minimal crew personnel, no practice and no qualifying. The drivers and crew chiefs weren't able to work on their cars until racing got underway, and everyone held their breath as the field flung themselves into the first turn.

Sunday's race was just the first of an unprecedented number of races lined up for the next six weeks. The limited contingent will return to Darlington again this Wednesday before heading over to Charlotte Motor Speedway for two more races next week. This week's race will be on the same circuit, but it would be fallacy to expect a carbon copy of what we saw on Sunday. The cooler temperatures brought on by racing in the night on a track with a little more rubber laid down will be another challenge as the series moves full steam ahead to make up for lost time.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick started Sunday's race with the lead and victory

Kevin Harvick entered Sunday's The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway as one of the favorites, and his calm and consistent approach to the race paid off with his first victory of the season. He raced at the front for most of the afternoon, and ultimately held off Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch as he eased ahead to victory. Sunday's race was one with many unknowns after the season was halted after just four races. The teams had been off for what amounted to a normal offseason and were forced right back into action with minimal crew personnel, no practice and no qualifying. The drivers and crew chiefs weren't able to work on their cars until racing got underway, and everyone held their breath as the field flung themselves into the first turn.

Sunday's race was just the first of an unprecedented number of races lined up for the next six weeks. The limited contingent will return to Darlington again this Wednesday before heading over to Charlotte Motor Speedway for two more races next week. This week's race will be on the same circuit, but it would be fallacy to expect a carbon copy of what we saw on Sunday. The cooler temperatures brought on by racing in the night on a track with a little more rubber laid down will be another challenge as the series moves full steam ahead to make up for lost time.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick started Sunday's race with the lead and victory within his grasp. He and his team methodically put their plan into action and persevered while the competition encountered trouble early in Sunday's race. The plan paid off as he continued racing at the front throughout the afternoon and stretched his way to his second Darlington win. Harvick hasn't finished outside of the top 10 at Darlington since 2012, and his win on Sunday further cements his legacy at the iconic track. He's a picture of consistency at this track and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in every race run so far this season. He could be tough to beat Wednesday, too.

Alex Bowman – Bowman, like his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, was among the fastest in the early miles Sunday at Darlington. As his teammates dealt with problems, he soldiered on and remained one of the fastest cars as the miles began to count down. By the end, he was the one chasing Harvick to the checkered flag. Prior to Sunday, he had never scored a top-10 finish at Darlington, but he walked away from Sunday's race with a runner-up at the circuit and his second top-five of the season. Bowman just signed on for another year at Hendrick this week, and with one win already under his belt this season, he could be the driver to watch as the series regains momentum after its enforced hiatus.

Kurt Busch – Veteran Kurt Busch and his resume at Darlington should have been difficult for fantasy owners to pass over for Sunday's race. He repaid those who had faith in him with a top-five finish. That third-place result was his third consecutive top-10 this season, too. He has a new teammate in Matt Kenseth, and the pair of veterans working together could help each other as they both work to challenge the teams that have dominated recent seasons. Busch will look for another top finish this Wednesday at Darlington where he now has 10 top-10 finishes, including the last four. Fantasy owners who didn't choose him Sunday likely will be rethinking their decisions Wednesday.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski started Sunday's race from the pole position after a random draw among the top 12 cars in owner's points. He started the race quickly and led the opening laps but faded following the competition caution. His team made the adjustments he needed and he worked his way back to the front to win the second stage. By the time the race finished, he again slid outside of the top 10 to finish 13th, however. While the win and top finish may not have materialized, it was still a good afternoon, upon which he and the team can build for Wednesday's event. He won at Darlington in 2018 and has four top-10 finishes in his six Darlington starts, including Sunday's outing.

DOWNGRADE

William Byron – Byron was one of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets that rose to the top of the running order on Sunday following the competition caution. He was chasing down teammate Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of the first stage when Johnson lost control and crashed. That mistake handed Byron the segment win, but his success didn't last long, as he suffered a tire failure and hit the wall in the second stage. It was a big disappointment for Byron, who was running in the top five at the time, since the Hendrick cars all seemed to be ahead of the competition early in the race. He'll have another chance on Wednesday, though. His best finish at the track was 21st, but he did start from pole in that race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse picked up the dubious honor of bringing out the first caution in NASCAR's return to racing Sunday. On the very first lap, Stenhouse found himself on the far inside of the turn and spun trying to avoid sliding up the track and making heavier contact with the oncoming field. The damage his car took from contact with the inside was heavy enough to take him completely out of the race and left him looking forward to his next try this coming Wednesday. Stenhouse has now gone eight Cup starts at Darlington Raceway without a top-10 finish. His best finish at the track was 12th in 2018, and just getting to the finish on Wednesday might be a good expectation.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson had an excellent chance to grab an elusive stage victory in the opening segment of Sunday's return to racing at Darlington. On the final lap of the first stage, while in the lead, Johnson moved to pass a slower car off of turn 2, lost control and hit the inside wall, ruining his afternoon. Johnson had been on an upward swing in results before the pandemic put the season on pause, and things looked to be going his way early in Sunday's race. Instead, Johnson lost out on a potential top finish and racked up another disappointing result as he counts down his final full-time days in the series. His pace was quick, which could mean good things for Wednesday's race. He is a three-time Darlington winner. 

Ryan Blaney – Blaney appeared to have the pace to win multiple races as the 2020 series kicked off, but in the past two races he has struggled to match that early race form. The long break for quarantine didn't appear to benefit him. Once the green flag flew on Sunday's return, he seemed to struggle, mired deep in the field throughout most of the race distance. Those problems were a surprise considering the early-season pace he seemed to have. Compounding that was the fact that his teammates seemed to be running well at Darlington. Blaney picked up some ground in the final miles, but his slowness to rediscover his early season mojo could be a concern as the series faces a rush of races in a short time frame.

Kyle Busch – Busch was expected to be one of the drivers to battle among the front for the win on Sunday's return to racing, but it turned out to be a frustrating afternoon for him. His car failed inspection twice, and he was forced to start the race from the rear only to ultimately rub the wall later. In the closing laps, one final issue with a loose wheel sent him to the pits after just gaining multiple spots on the pit stops earlier. Busch will have plenty of seat time over the next few weeks as he races in all of NASCAR's top series, but he would have been hoping for more from Sunday's initial outing at Darlington.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tyler Reddick – Reddick had never started a Cup series race at Darlington prior to facing Sunday's many unknowns. He said his biggest challenge would be avoiding going down a lap to the leaders in the early miles. That fear proved to be unfounded, as by the second segment he was racing his way well inside the top 10. As the miles wore on, he consolidated his position and drove a mature race in uncertain conditions on a very difficult circuit. That performance could be indicative of what fantasy owners might expect from him as he gains more experience in this series. His first outing on one of the most difficult circuits under less than ideal circumstances was by all means a success.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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