The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has provided a series of unexpected challenges to the 2020 NASCAR season since its abrupt hiatus following the first week of March. With the sport set to resume in less than two weeks, it will present a new weekly approach for the teams, competitors and the sanctioning body to complete this season. The return of the NASCAR Cup Series at Darlington Raceway in the spring will be a new yet familiar approach for the veterans while it will be an entirely first experience for this year’s rookie class.
None of this year’s rookies have started a Cup race at Darlington. To add to the challenge, a Darlington race has never been won by a newcomer since the Rookie of the Year award was established in 1958. Nonetheless, they will all receive their first of three opportunities in 2020 to master their toughness against every corner of the disproportionate circuit.
Through the first four races of the 2020 campaign, Cole Custer leads the rookie standings and holds an average result of 20.75. He finished 37th in the Daytona 500 due to a late mechanical failure but rallied with top-20 results at Las Vegas and Auto Club before earning his first career top-10 finish at Phoenix prior to the hiatus.
One benefit for Custer is that he has raced at Darlington in the previous three seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where he averaged a 4.0 result and emerged victorious last September when initial winner Denny Hamlin was disqualified for failing post-race inspection. Another benefit is that Darlington has been a relatively strong track for Custer’s team, Stewart-Haas Racing, with 18 top-10 results and a win in 2014 with Kevin Harvick. The experience of notching a win along with driving for one of NASCAR’s competitive teams could all serve as potential factors for Custer to build toward his recent momentum at one of NASCAR’s demanding venues.
If there is someone who has momentum on his side this season, it is Tyler Reddick. The two-time reigning Xfinity Series champion’s season has been a roller coaster. Through the first four races, his best result has been an 11th-place finish at Auto Club. He had a potential top-10 performance at Phoenix the following week spoiled by a late wreck, which dropped his average result to 22.5.
Like Custer, Reddick has raced at Darlington in the Xfinity Series with three teams, averaging a result of 7.0 with a best result of second last September. Of the teams representing this year’s rookie class, Reddick’s team, Richard Childress Racing, has the most starts at Darlington. Since 1976, RCR has eight wins at the track, all with the late Dale Earnhardt, but none since 1994. Having on-track speed early in a season to compete against NASCAR’s current stars could give the young Californian the confidence to flip his misfortunes into fortunes and tame the challenges at Darlington.
Next is John Hunter Nemechek, a second-generation racer from Mooresville, N.C., whose interim role in the final three Cup races last season netted him a full-time ride this season with Front Row Motorsports. He earned his career-best result of 11th in the Daytona 500 before finishing in the top 25 the following three weeks, pulling an average result of 21.25. His only attempt at Darlington came last September, where he finished 21st driving for GMS Racing. Front Row Motorsports has been racing at Darlington since 2005 with best results coming in 2016 with Chris Buescher (17th) and in 2018 with David Ragan (18th).
Having a young driver like Nemechek in FRM’s two-car stable goes a long way toward building a winning success in the current season and beyond. It is a matter of the team providing more horsepower and generating consistency for the rookie to contend against the veterans and navigate a track where his father, Joe, raced 29 times.
In a season where racing as a Cup driver has been a first for Brennan Poole, the Darlington race in mid-May will also be his first in NASCAR’s premier series. He earned an impressive 16th-place result in his Daytona 500 debut but finished 29th, 32nd and 31st the following three races. In two Xfinity starts at Darlington, where he drove for Chip Ganassi Racing, he averaged a result of 5.5, finishing fifth in 2016 and sixth in 2017. While Poole’s results at the track have been impressive, the results from his team, Premium Motorsports, have been dismal. In eight Darlington races, the team’s best result has been 28th with Ross Chastain in 2018 and 2019, which indicates how far away the team fares against the majority.
Like Poole, this season has been entirely new for Christopher Bell with the opportunity to race full time in the Cup Series. In comparison to his previous four seasons and successes between the NASCAR Truck Series and the Xfinity Series, Bell’s first Cup season has been disappointing. Thus far, the Oklahoma native has sustained two DNFs and has only finished as high as 21st from the Daytona 500. In two Xfinity starts at Darlington, his average finish is 17.0, finishing 34th due to an accident in 2018 but rallying to finish fourth last season.
On the bright side, Bell’s team, Leavine Family Racing, recorded an eighth-place result last season in their fourth attempt at the track with Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel. The result indicates that LFR is striving to contend for wins on a weekly basis, even on NASCAR’s historic venues, and aims to repeat the success of last season as they set aside their early misfortunes and start generating positives for Bell.
Finally, Quin Houff is a total newcomer at Darlington, having never raced at the track in any series. Of all the competitors in this year’s rookie class, he has the most Cup Series starts at 21, but has only finished as high as 30th. His team, StarCom Racing, has recorded a best result of 11th at Daytona last July with Landon Cassill, and their best performance at Darlington is 25th, coming last season with Cassill, giving both the driver and the team a lot to develop for the future.
With six rookie candidates, this season features the largest rookie class in a Cup season since 2014, which had eight, and features the next wave of developing stars who have worked their way through the ranks of NASCAR and now get to display their full potential against the sport’s elite. Will Darlington feature a potential upset similar to when Regan Smith wheeled to the first win for himself and Furniture Row Racing in 2011? Only the sport’s return will evaluate how the rookies will fare in their first attempt at the track deemed, “Too Tough to Tame.”