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Pistone: Long Awaited Return

The NASCAR Cup Series ended its 71-day drought away from the track this past Sunday at Darlington Raceway and there was much to digest after The Real Heroes 400.

Sure there are only 400 miles in the book and the hectic return to action schedule will have the Cup Series in action eight more times through June 21, including a return to Darlington Wednesday (MRN, 5 p.m. ET). Things will change and more stories will develop, but the opening Darlington race generated a number of intriguing thoughts:

First and foremost was just how well everything appeared to go in Darlington. NASCAR, the track, local officials, broadcast partners and the teams all executed the detailed protocols and policies put into place flawlessly. Once the initial shock of seeing "The Track Too Tough to Tame" empty of fans rather than its usual scene of filled grandstands and a packed infield, the on-track competition took hold and was a welcomed return to at least a little normalcy. As NASCAR stated when the plan to return was first unveiled there will be tweaks and modifications as the schedule goes alone to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved but the initial operation could not have gone better.

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Darlington has been a good track for Kevin Harvick over the years and the way he started the season (seemingly eons ago) was a solid indication he’d be strong on Sunday. He was and his 50th career Cup win added to his Darlington record, which now has a pair of victories on his resume. Harvick is a perfect five-for-five this season in top-10 finishes and at the minimum he’s now a lock for the playoffs thanks to his first win of 2020.

A couple of Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished in the top five with Alex Bowman (2nd) and Chase Elliott (4th). The other two members of the stable had troubles that added up to poor finishes for William Byron (35th) and Jimmie Johnson (38th). However, even before they suffered their early exits, both Byron and Johnson were at or near the front of the field. The overall showing continued what the Hendrick stable had demonstrated in the opening quartet of races that an off-season of work and the addition of the new Camaro body style appears to have already paid dividends.

The two veteran drivers were back behind the wheel after being away from NASCAR for distinctly different reasons. Kenseth was tabbed to fill the seat vacated by Kyle Larson’s firing when he uttered a racial slur in an iRacing event during the sport’s hiatus. Kenseth jumped in the car, never met his pit crew because of the social distancing policies in place and didn’t turn his first competitive lap in the car until the green flag flew since there wasn’t any practice and qualifying on the agenda. Despite all those hurdles, he impressively finished 10th. Newman had been out since his violent last-lap Daytona 500 accident. But the 10-week layoff helped him be able to recover from injuries without missing much time and in his return to the Roush Fenway Racing Ford, he came out of Darlington with a 15th-place finish.

Well maybe Ricky Stenhouse Jr. might have a problem with that assertion since he crashed on the opening lap Sunday, but overall the lack of practice and qualifying didn’t seem to impact many drivers and teams. They’d better get used to the idea because NASCAR’s schedule for the immediate future at least through the June 21st Talladega race is more, I mean less of the same. Getting to the track, unloading the cars, going through tech inspection and then lining up to race will be the norm. It will be interesting to see if practice time will at least be cut down to a degree as a cost cutting measure when weekend schedules begin to ramp back up.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.