|What||The Real Heroes 400 NASCAR Cup Series race|
|When||Sunday, May 17, 3:30 p.m. EST|
|How to watch||FOX|
With a compressed schedule, NASCAR will resume its 2020 season, on hiatus for more than two months because of the coronavirus pandemic, with The Real Heroes 400 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway—without fans in the grandstands.
The first of two Cup events in four days at the 1.366-mile track, the race will be the first contested in the spring at Darlington since 2014, after which the Southern 500 shifted from Mother’s Day weekend back to its traditional Labor Day weekend date.
There will be no practice or qualifying for the 293-lap event; hence, the starting order for the race will be set by three random draws involving the 36 chartered teams—first, among the top 12 in owner points through the first four races of the season, then from positions 13-24 in owner points, and finally from positions 25-36.
The final four spots in the 40-car field, featuring non-chartered teams, will be filled in owner points order.
|Martin Truex Jr.||+800|
Odds taken from BetMGM, May 15.
Drivers of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have won five of the last seven NASCAR Cup Series events at Darlington Raceway: defending Southern 500 winner Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards (retired) and Matt Kenseth (coming out of retirement in The Real Heroes 400).
Surprisingly absent from the recent group of winners is Kyle Busch, Sunday’s favorite at +500.
Busch hasn’t won The Lady in Black since his debut year with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008, but Hamlin, in particular, has a knack for the challenging egg-shaped track.
In addition to his two Southern 500 victories (2010 and 2017), Hamlin (+700) has five poles and five wins in 12 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts, including a remarkable stretch of eight races in which he finished either first or second.
The 39-year-old veteran is particularly effective at speedways that place a premium on tire management. Darlington certainly falls into that category.
Drivers in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 will race on the tires intended for this year’s event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, postponed from March 22 to a date still to be determined.
That shouldn’t present a hardship, however, as Goodyear provided those same tire codes for last year’s races at Darlington, Homestead, and Chicagoland.
The winners of those three races?
Erik Jones (Darlington), Kyle Busch (Homestead), and Alex Bowman (Chicagoland). A deeper dive reveals that six drivers—Truex, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Kenseth—have combined to win 16 of the 21 races held at those three speedways over the past seven years.
Each driver on that list is a master at conserving equipment and providing feedback to his crew chief about changes that will help the car’s performance. It’s highly likely that Sunday’s race winner will come from that group.
After sustaining a head injury during a vicious crash in the Daytona 500, Ryan Newman recently received medical clearance from NASCAR and will return to action at Darlington.
So will Matt Kenseth, who hasn’t raced in 18 months after retiring from NASCAR’s top series.
The surprise choice to replace Kyle Larson in the No. 42 car at Chip Ganassi Racing (after Larson was dismissed April 14 for using a racial slur during an iRacing competition), Kenseth will face an extraordinarily difficult task in getting up to speed with a new team, with a new make of car (Chevrolet), with a generation of race car he hasn’t driven—and all without the opportunity to practice.
Even at long odds, those factors make Kenseth (+2000) a bad bet in his debut with Ganassi, despite his past success at one of NASCAR’s most challenging tracks.
Though he has scored 12 top-10 finishes in 25 starts at The Lady in Black, Kenseth is unlikely to run better than 15th to 20th on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin (+700) — Based on his affinity for the track, his tire management skills, the notes he and crew chief Chris Gabehart have accumulated, and the history of Joe Gibbs Racing’s success at the track, we expect to see Hamlin take the checkered flag on Sunday.
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]More info on Reid Spencer
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