DARLINGTON, S.C. — Following lap one of Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, it looked as though Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team were in for a long afternoon.
As it turned out, Truex soldiered through adversity to post a sixth-place finish at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval — his best finish of the season in the five NASCAR Cup Series races completed so far.
Truex battled an ill-handling race car for much of the day after a hole was punched in the nose of his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry during an opening-lap skirmish at Darlington.
He and crew chief James Small persevered, however, adjusting on the car all afternoon and climbing out of the hole that was dug for them from the green flag.
“It was looking pretty dark and gloomy there for the first two runs. Honestly, my biggest concern was not wrecking the first run, because it was so far off and it was all I could do to just hang on to it,” Truex said. “The second run it took off a little bit better, but then it came right back around to being terrible again. I just had to ride and wait on the track to take some rubber and things to change, and toward the end of that run, we were starting to get somewhat competitive and I knew there was some light there at the end of the tunnel.
“We kept taking big swings at it and it was a great job by James (Small, crew chief) and the guys to stay calm and do what needed to be done,” Truex added. “We were able to make something out of the day and I felt like toward the end there, we had a top-three or four car. We were faster than the leader when we could get clean air at the end, so that was promising.”
— The track often billed as “Too Tough to Tame” generally doesn’t reward rookie competitors making their first trips to Darlington, but both Tyler Reddick and John Hunter Nemechek bucked the trend Sunday.
Reddick and Nemechek both ran inside the top 10 for much of the race’s second half, with the former earning a seventh-place finish for Richard Childress Racing and the latter posting a ninth-place result for Front Row Motorsports.
It was both young guns’ best result of the NASCAR Cup Series season.
For Nemechek in particular, Sunday’s effort was noteworthy. Not only was it his first top-10 finish in eight NASCAR Cup Series starts, it also marked the first top-10 finish for Front Row as an organization on a non-superspeedway race track in three-and-a-half years.
— They may not have all gotten the finishes they deserved, but the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in the field at Darlington showed impressive pace, boding well for the remainder of the season.
Three of the quartet led Sunday, headlined by Alex Bowman’s runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick after being out front for 41 circuits. Chase Elliott came home fourth and William Byron won the first stage.
Jimmie Johnson was leading coming to the end of stage one but made contact with Chris Buescher exiting turn two and lost control of his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 before crashing on the backstretch.
Byron later had a loose wheel that led to a spin and damage that took his car out of contention.
— It was fitting that Darlington Raceway was the site of Sunday’s return to racing, albeit with a touch of irony.
The venerable facility has been on the NASCAR calendar every year since 1950, but it was nearly left for dead in 2005 following a schedule realignment that removed the track’s tradition-laden Labor Day weekend event and reassigned it to California’s Auto Club Speedway.
But as NASCAR forged ahead, Darlington and its fans persisted. The Southern 500 later returned to the track and has been back in its traditional Labor Day weekend position since 2015.
Sunday afternoon, NASCAR returned after a two-month stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was fitting that return came at Darlington, as if completing a circle that no one saw being formed at the time.
— Roughly 900 people were considered essential and permitted entry into the infield at Darlington over the weekend, but NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France was not one of them.
France, 75, is in the age group considered to be at a high risk to contract the coronavirus and, as such, wasn’t in the middle of the action during NASCAR’s return. That didn’t mean he didn’t have something to say, however.
The head of the sport used the public address microphone in the scoring tower to thank “the entire industry for their efforts to get us back racing” before Sunday’s event began.
— Much like France, most of the NASCAR Cup Series team owners were not in the infield on Sunday, as the majority fall into the at-risk age bracket for COVID-19.
One who was, however, was Gaunt Brothers Racing owner Marty Gaunt, who pitched in by helping his No. 96 team as a tire carrier during pit stops. His driver, Daniel Suarez, finished 25th.
— Thanks to an invert of the top 20, JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ryan Preece will start on the pole for Wednesday night’s Toyota 500, the second Cup Series race scheduled at Darlington in four nights’ time.
The action kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET, with live coverage on FS1, the Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.