By Cole Cusumano
Darlington Raceway is notorious for being one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit for all three of NASCAR’s National Series. When you factor in that there would be no practice or qualifying prior to race day after a 10-week hiatus due to COVID-19, that level of difficulty should be significantly amplified.
Just how tough was it to jump right back into competition after two months with no seat time? In the sport’s return in The Real Heroes 400, seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson was eliminated from contention at the end of Stage One due to a wreck. The 2018 Rookie of the Year, William Byron, was also claimed by ‘The Lady in Black’ before the midway point in the 400 mile event.
While series veterans like Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski were in control for a majority of the race, it was the rookie class of 2020 that really turned heads on Sunday afternoon — namely, two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion, Tyler Reddick and Front Row Motorsports’ John Hunter Nemechek.
Reddick, who can now be deemed as the clear cut frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year accolade, has silenced any doubters saying he wasn’t ready to tackle the sport’s premier series. Following up his exhilarating top-10 run at Phoenix Raceway that was thwarted by a late-race incident, the 24-year-old conquered the 1.366-mile track, finishing seventh. He even made it up to as high as fifth after taking the green flag from the 29th position.
“Our first day back in the No. 8 Caterpillar Chevrolet was a little rough around the edges at times, but starting out in the 29th spot and racing our way into the top five in about the first 125 laps was just an outstanding kick off our race,” Reddick said. “It felt like we were bouncing right back from our good momentum that we had at Phoenix Raceway before this break.”
The California-native cited the track transitions being the most demanding aspect in his Darlington Cup debut. Another hurdle thrown Reddick’s way was a piece of debris got stuck on the grill of his No. 8 Chevy Camaro.
“That caused a slight pit road miscue with a tire, which sent us to the tail of the line and forced us to fight back from 29th one more time,” Reddick said. “We never gave up, and all in all, it was a great day. A seventh-place finish is a great way to come back, and we’ll look to build momentum from here. Good news is, we get to come back Wednesday night and try to finish seven spots better.”
While he has yet to lead a lap this season through five races, Reddick has raced inside the top-five in each contest, even with his best qualifying effort being 19th at Auto Club Speedway.
The most pleasant surprise of the day came from ninth-place finisher, John Hunter Nemechek. The 22-year-old didn’t just pick up the first top-10 of his young Cup career, he also notched Front Row Motorsports’ best result outside of a superspeedway since Chris Buescher won at Pocono Raceway in 2016.
“It was great to get kicked off on the right foot for these races coming up,” Nemechek said. “Hopefully, we can continue to build on this and create some momentum and continue to get our cars faster each and every week. It was a full team effort and we stayed on top of it, so it was definitely a great day and something to be proud of for us. It’s pretty amazing to have that accomplishment and hopefully we can continue to have the momentum roll our way, but it came down to the final restart and we had our car tuned up for the end.”
Nemechek was able to get the best of fellow Rookie of the Year contenders and heavy hitters in Cole Custer and Christopher Bell. The racing prodigy ran inside of the top-15 for most of the day, right up there with the best of them. Should the question now be raised if Nemechek could be a viable candidate to challenge the former Xfinity Series ‘Big Three?’
“To be able to continue to compete with them and to race them week in, week out with the circumstances that we have at Front Row, it definitely makes myself feel good and makes our team feel good, Nemechek admitted. “It was a lot of fun being able to tame the ‘Lady in Black.’ I left everything out there on the race track, that’s for sure.”
To find the next highest ranked rookie, you’ll have to look back at 22nd to find Cole Custer — which was about where he ran throughout the event. Bell ended up finishing 24th, after working his way up into the top-10 and getting into an incident on Lap 174. Brennan Poole placed 27th, and Quin Houff brought it home in the 37th position after a fuel pump failure derailed his day at the end of Stage One.
The good thing for these remaining four rookies is that they’ll have the opportunity to improve upon their Darlington debuts on Wednesday night in the Toyota 500. It will also be a great test to see if Reddick and Nemechek are able to apply what they learned from Sunday and give the series veterans a run for their money.
The Toyota 500 at Darlington Raceway is the first of two 500 kilometer events in May and it will be aired on Fox Sports 1 and 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
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