Ryan Newman is back. So is Matt Kenseth. And the NASCAR schedule? It’s evolving.
Much has changed since Cup last raced March 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
When the season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX), Newman will compete for the first time since he suffered a bruised brain in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.
Newman was injured when his car was hit from behind while racing for the win and veered into the wall. His No. 6 Ford went airborne and turned upside down before Corey LaJoie’s car slammed into it. Newman’s car skidded upside down along the frontstretch, coming to rest past the exit of pit road.
MORE: Storylines – Where Cup Series left off
MORE: NASCAR reveals competition rule changes
Newman said in a March 11 interview with NBC’s “Today” show that the car’s cage “was compromised.”
NASCAR revealed technical changes May 1 in response to Newman’s crash. With the COVID-19 pandemic suspending the season, Newman will miss only three races. NASCAR has granted Newman a waiver should he need it to qualify for the playoffs. He enters this weekend 29th in the driver standings, 54 points out of a potential playoff position.
“We certainly recognize that the easiest path to make the playoffs is win a race,” Kevin Kidd, competition director for Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports. “We’re going to do everything in our power to accomplish that.”
Newman, though, is ahead of Kenseth in the standings. Chip Ganassi Racing hired Kenseth after the team fired Kyle Larson on April 14 for saying a racial slur during an iRacing event.
Kenseth’s last start came in the 2018 Cup finale in Miami.
Even so, former teammate Denny Hamlin is confident Kenseth will succeed.
“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” Hamlin joked. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse but just different. So, I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush toward the end (of the 2018 season).
“He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point. I mean that jokingly.”
Kenseth also didn’t expect to be racing in Cup again before Ganassi officials reached out to him.
“You just never know what life is going to throw at you,” Kenseth told NBC Sports.
NASCAR also has granted Kenseth a waiver should he need it to make the playoffs.
One thing that keeps changing is the schedule.
This much is known: the Cup Series will race May 17 and 20 at Darlington Raceway and May 24 and 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
No other races have been announced at this point, although Cup teams are preparing cars for Bristol Motor Speedway, signaling that the high-banked, half-mile track could be the site of the next Cup race after Darlington and Charlotte.
Atlanta Motor Speedway also appears likely to happen soon. And even with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to ease restrictions, it doesn’t appear likely that NASCAR will race at Martinsville until late June at the earliest.
NASCAR announced May 8 that the Richmond spring race, the Chicagoland race and Sonoma race were realigned to the two Darlington and one extra Charlotte race this month. This year will mark the first time since 1958 that Richmond has hosted only one Cup race in a season. Cup had raced once a year at Sonoma since 1989 and at Chicagoland since 2001.
NASCAR stated that further schedule adjustments will be released in the near future.
Another change for teams is that they will have fewer crew members at the track in upcoming races. Cup teams could have as many as 10 crew members, including the crew chief and spotter, along with five pit crew members, three organizational team members and a couple of hauler drivers. That didn’t include additional senior level executives and the team owner, among others. For some teams, that was more than 20 people per team per race.
Now, teams are limited to no more than 16 individuals, with no more than six road crew members (including the crew chief and spotter). The reduced list also includes one driver, one competition director, one IT support person, two hauler drivers and five pit crew members.
Some teams are not taking either of their two engineers to the track. Instead of sitting atop the pit box next to the crew chief, they’ll be working from home or the shop. Crew chief Chris Gayle, who guided Erik Jones to the Southern 500 win last year in the most recent race at Darlington, will leave his engineers behind.
“I can have them connected to me wherever they are,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “I think the (crew number) is so limited, like if you look at what you really need behind the wall for pit stops and then from the standpoint of running the race. The race is going to be the same protocol as a normal race, meaning the (Damaged Vehicle Policy, which limits what type and how long teams can spend on repairs) and all the rest.
“I wanted to make sure that I had enough people that if we had damage we had the correct people that could work on things. I didn’t want to sacrifice that.”