Nate Ryan: Kenseth. A new team he barely knew (and hardly could get to know much because of social distancing restrictions), a downforce-horsepower package he hardly raced, a track he hadn’t practiced on … not exactly a recipe for his second consecutive top 10 in Cup races that were 547 days apart. What he did at Darlington was as impressive or more than finishing sixth in his Cup debut at Dover in September 1998 (filling in for Bill Elliott with a team he also barely knew).
Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth’s performance considering his circumstances was impressive, but I’m going to go with rookie Tyler Reddick. He’s been fast, he’s been toward the front in some races this season but hadn’t put together a complete race. To do so in his first Cup start at Darlington and without the benefit of practice of qualifying speaks volumes of his performance. Even Kenseth was impressed.
Daniel McFadin: Matt Kenseth, easily. To come off the bench after more than 15 months of not competing in NASCAR and race at Darlington without any practice or qualifying and finish 10th further cements him as one of the most reliable drivers of his era. Chip Ganassi is probably very relieved.
Jerry Bonkowski: Matt Kenseth. Here’s a guy who had not been in a Cup car for more than 1 1/2 years, had no practice or qualifying, and yet was able to earn a top-10 finish in his first race back. It was like riding a bike: Kenseth didn’t forget how to race. If there was a theme song that best epitomized Kenseth’s return on Sunday, it’s “Back In The Saddle Again” (either the Gene Autry or Aerosmith version).
Sunday marked the first of five Cup races scheduled in 14 days. They series is scheduled to race twice at Darlington, twice at Charlotte and once at Bristol by May 31. What will you be watching for in this stretch?
Nate Ryan: Whether the gulf between well-funded and well-staffed powerhouse teams and the have-nots becomes even greater. And which drivers and teams are the most physically and mentally fit to handle the frenzy (keeping an eye on Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch).
Dustin Long: I want to see who excels and who falters. This stretch represents more than 20% of what is remaining in the regular season. That’s a significant portion. A series of strong runs could elevate a team. And a series of poor finishes could all but destroy a team. Who will rise and who will fall?
Daniel McFadin: I’ll be watching to see if performance from one race translates to the next, especially with the Darlington and Charlotte races. With Kevin Harvick’s team bringing his winning car back Wednesday night, will his car still perform the same way under the lights as it did in the daytime?
Jerry Bonkowski: Fatigue will be the biggest thing to watch for, particularly next Wednesday’s race at Charlotte and the race at Bristol. Whoever can best manage the fatigue of five Cup races in two weeks could make a big statement. Hand-in-hand with managing fatigue is consistency. The driver who has the best combination of finishes in those five races could potentially lift himself to be the driver to beat heading into the meat of the schedule.
What do you think of how NASCAR is setting the starting lineup for the second Darlington and second Charlotte Cup races by inverting the top 20 from the previous race at those tracks?
Nate Ryan: A good idea that makes me as intrigued to watch Wednesday night as Sunday’s return (and maybe even more so). The shorter race distances for both events also are a good idea for ratcheting up the action.
Dustin Long: Will be interested to see how this plays out in a shorter race. Adds another element to the race.
Daniel McFadin: I’m very intrigued by it and whether it will have a significant impact on who is competitive. Having Ryan Preece and Ty Dillon start on the front row Wednesday is enticing. Will the rules package help them stay up front longer or will they quickly be afterthoughts? It’s also a valuable move for sponsors of teams that might not run in the top 10 often.
Jerry Bonkowski: Given there is no practice or qualifying, I think that’s a very fair way of setting the starting lineup. It makes everyone on the same page and, in a sense, really isn’t all that much different from how a driver qualifies in regular fashion. Some days you’re going to qualify higher and other days lower. Inverting the top 20 from the previous race finish is the best way to do so until we eventually go back to qualifying.