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Pistone: Early Returns

The NASCAR Cup Series hectic return to action saw a number of drivers excel while others are struggling to turn things around.

Since the series ended its more than two month hiatus for the COVID-19 pandemic when it got back on track at Darlington Raceway on May 17, NASCAR’s top division has run five races through last Sunday’s Food City presents The Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Over that five race span, here’s a look at a number of drivers that generated attention for both the right and wrong reasons.

The Team Penske driver pulled off a pair of victories with both coming in dramatic fashion. Keselowski won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte when he inherited the top spot late when leader Chase Elliott decided to pit for tires under caution. Win number two came Sunday at Bristol when Elliott and Joey Logano got together racing for the lead with three laps to go allowing Keselowski to race by and off to Victory Lane. The success has created an additional story line as Keselowski looks to lock up his next deal beyond his current contract with Penske, which expires at season’s end.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has certainly been in the spotlight a great deal since the hiatus ended. Elliott was involved in a controversial accident at Darlington when Kyle Busch punted him in the inside wall trying to get back into the racing grove. The backfired pit strategy that cost Elliott the 600 stung for a few days until he was able to get a win a few days later in the second Charlotte race. Then came Bristol where Elliott again was in the mix for Victory Lane until the late going when the incident with Logano ended his day. Elliott does lead the series with five stage wins and has accumulated 11 playoff points through the first nine races of the season.

It took until Sunday’s Bristol race for Harvick’s consecutive top-10 streak to be snapped and he was the only driver to do so in the previous eight races before his 11th in "Thunder Valley." Harvick opened the post shutdown schedule by winning at Darlington and he’s been one of the top point accumulators since the return. On the flip side while Harvick is the overall point leader in the standings he’s thus far only won one stage.

Things have not gone well for Kenseth since taking over the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet after Kyle Larson was released by the team. Kenseth did get a top-10 finish in the Darlington return, which in itself was somewhat remarkable give his layoff and unfamiliarity with the car and entire team for that matter. But that was the high water mark as Kenseth followed up with finishes of 30th, 26th, 23rd and 16th. He’s been involved in a number of incidents not of his on doing along the way but the veteran is definitely in need of a better outing as soon as possible.

The highly-touted rookie’s transition from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series has been challenging. But there has been signs of progress in recent weeks, including Sunday at Bristol where Bell finished ninth for his second top-10 finish in the last four races. The Leavine Family Racing driver has been much better about finishing races than he was at the season’s outset when Bell had two DNFs.