NASCAR returned this weekend after more than a two-month break, and fans won’t have to wait long for the Cup Series to get back on the track. On the heels of Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, the drivers will have to deal with “The Lady in Black” again Wednesday night.
Back-to-back races at the same track is certainly unusual, but under the current circumstances, it is the best way to keep drivers and teams safe and cars on the track. It also gives us the rare opportunity to have a near-perfect predictor of what to expect fresh in our memory. Granted, the second Darlington race will be held under the lights, but we have a pretty good idea of who should be fast.
Here are a few of my quick takeaways from the first race out of the break. Kevin Harvick might have the best combination of speed and consistency in the series. The Hendrick Motorsports cars are still really fast. Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman deserve a ton of credit. Kenseth rolled off the couch to deliver a Top 10, and Newman notched a Top 15 in his first start after nearly dying. Tyler Reddick could save Richard Childress Racing, and the big teams need to think long and hard about signing John Hunter Nemechek.
Another important thing to remember ahead of Wednesday’s Toyota 500 is that the lineup will be set in a unique format. The Top 20 finishers from Sunday’s race will be inverted, putting Ryan Preece on the pole and Kevin Harvick in the 20th spot. The rest of the drivers will start where they finished over the weekend. The format is going to create a lot of opportunities for place differential points.
1. Kevin Harvick
He was atop my rankings heading into Sunday’s race, and after leading a race-high 159 laps on his way to a win, Harvick remains at No. 1 as we head back to Darlington this Wednesday. With the victory, he now owns a 3.7 average finish in seven starts at the track with Stewart-Haas Racing.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin delivered another strong run at one of his best tracks Sunday, notching a fifth-place finish and delivering 11 stage points. He now has 12 Top 10s in 15 Darlington starts, and he has six Top 5s in the last nine races here. Hamlin offers a high floor in any fantasy format.
3. Alex Bowman
Bowman’s hot start to 2020 continued despite the layoff, and he had a career day at Darlington. He led 41 laps in a runner-up effort, and he also finished in the Top 3 in both stages. Bowman’s is absolutely in play in all fantasy formats ahead of Wednesday’s return trip to the track.
4. Chase Elliott
Although he wasn’t dominant by any stretch Sunday, Elliott worked his way from 11th up into the Top 5, eventually settling for a fourth-place finish. He and the entire Hendrick Motorsports camp continue to show plenty of speed in 2020, and Elliott should be back in the mix for another Top 5 in Race No. 2 of the Darlington doubleheader.
5. Kyle Busch
He had a rollercoaster of a day at Darlington this past weekend. Busch had to start at the rear after multiple inspection failures, and after rallying into the Top 10, he again went to the back of the pack after suffering damage. He climbed back into the Top 5, but a loose wheel on the final pit stop resulted in a 26th-place finish. Busch burned a lot of fantasy owners, but he could make up for it Wednesday, especially at the DFS sites and in Slingshot. He has to start where he finished Sunday’s race, so he should pile up place differential points.
6. Brad Keselowski
After spending most of the race as one of the major players for the win, Keselowski faded on the final run and ended up 13th. On the plus side, he led 80 laps and picked up 16 stage points, winning Stage 1. Despite ending the race on a low note, you have to like his upside heading into Wednesday’s race.
7. Erik Jones
Jones wasn’t able to back up his win here from a year ago, but he added another solid Darlington finish to his resume with an eighth-place effort Sunday. He now owns a 5.5 average finish in four starts here and has never finished outside the Top 10.
8. Kurt Busch
He continued his recent run of success at Darlington, picking up a third-place finish over the weekend. Busch has now finished seventh or better in five of his last six starts here, and he also gained 19 spots in Sunday’s Top 3 effort. Starting 18th Wednesday, he could be a particularly great option for Slingshot Fantasy Auto and for cash lineups at the DFS sites.
9. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was searching for the handling on the No. 19 for most of the race, but he came alive at the end and stormed to a sixth-place finish. The strong finish is encouraging for his chances Wednesday night, but while I expect a Top 10, I’m still skeptical about his dominator potential at the DFS sites.
10. Jimmie Johnson
Talk about a punch to the gut. Johnson was a lap away from winning Stage 1 Sunday when he crashed while battling lap traffic. Throwing away a chance to win is not ideal, but from a fantasy standpoint, Johnson could be a gold mine Wednesday. He will have to start 37th, making him a must-own option for Slingshot Fantasy Auto and for cash lineups at the DFS sites.
11. Joey Logano
Logano had an uninspiring day at Darlington Sunday and ended up settling for an 18th-place finish. He’s finished outside the Top 10 in back-to-back races here, and while he could deliver a much better performance Wednesday, you may want to save him for another track.
12. William Byron
He quickly moved through the field Sunday, winning Stage 1 after starting 18th. Unfortunately, Byron got loose and smacked the wall during Stage 2, saddling him with a 35th-place finish. He will have to come from the rear Wednesday, but he has plenty of fantasy upside, especially in formats that value place differential.
13. Tyler Reddick
I went heavy on Reddick over the weekend, and the rookie delivered in a big way, gaining 22 spots and finishing seventh in his Darlington debut. He won’t have nearly as much place differential upside Wednesday night, but Reddick’s Top 10 potential makes him an excellent Group C option in the Driver Group Game.
14. Matt Kenseth
Hats off to this guy. Kenseth returned after being out of action for more than a year and delivered a Top 10 Sunday without a single lap of practice with the reduced-horsepower package. Yes, he a quality ride, but it was still an impressive performance. Kenseth should be an excellent Group C option in the DGG Wednesday night.
15. Aric Almirola
Almirola did what he does best and avoided trouble on his way to a Top 15 finish at Darlington Sunday. He ended up 12th and even grabbed five stage points, but while he offers a solid floor, Almirola doesn’t offer the type of upside that will take a fantasy lineup to the next level.
16. Clint Bowyer
He is one of the tougher drivers to evaluate heading into the second race at Darlington. Bowyer was having a solid run, but after finishing seventh and fifth in the first two stages, he fell like a rock in the final stretch and finished 17th. He will be a high-risk, high-reward fantasy play.
17. Ryan Blaney
For me, Blaney was one of the biggest disappointments Sunday. I know his record at Darlington hasn’t been spectacular, but he had shown a ton of speed prior to the break. He never looked capable of even challenging for a Top 10 this weekend, and I’ll probably pass on Blaney in most season-long formats.
18. Austin Dillon
If you are looking for a Group B sleeper in the Driver Group Game or for a sneaky play at the DFS sites, Dillon could be your man. He quietly finished 11th Sunday, and he now owns a 12.3 average finish in seven starts at Darlington, and he has finished 12th or better in five of those races.
19. Matt DiBenedetto
It wasn’t a banner day for DiBenedetto at Darlington on Sunday, but while he quickly faded from his Top 3 starting spot, he still ended up in the Top 15. A similar performance should be on tap Wednesday night, but since he will start in the Top 10 again, his value could be limited at the DFS sites.
20. Ryan Newman
Nothing like returning to the car after nearly dying in a wreck and immediately delivering a Top 15. It was great to see Newman back behind the wheel, and his ability to salvage respectable finishes seems to be intact.
21. John Hunter Nemechek
Like Tyler Reddick, Nemechek provided a major boost to my fantasy lineups this weekend, climbing from 34th to ninth. He won’t have the same value for DFS contests Wednesday night now that he will start 12th, but Nemechek could still be an excellent Group C play in the Driver Group Game.
22. Chris Buescher
Buescher had a rough afternoon at Darlington Sunday, finishing 32nd after being involved in a couple if incidents. Still, it is worth keeping in mind that he had finished 17th or better in all four Cup starts at Darlington prior to this weekend. I wouldn’t hesitate to use him Wednesday night in any format that values place differential.
23. Cole Custer
It wasn’t the best performance of Custer’s young career, but a 22nd-place effort in his Darlington debut wasn’t terrible either. Outside of a Top 10 at Phoenix, the rookie has been hovering around the middle of the pack most weeks. Look for Custer to battle for a Top 20 Wednesday night.
24. Ryan Preece
He finished a respectable 20th at Darlington Sunday, and with the inversion procedure NASCAR is using for Wednesday’s race, Preece will start on the pole. You can pencil him in for some negative place differential points, crushing his DFS value, but Preece could parlay the track position into another Top 20 run.
25. Ty Dillon
Fittingly, Dillon slots next to Ryan Preece in my rankings, and he will start next to him on the front row Wednesday after a 19th-place effort over the weekend. He’s going to take a beating in the place differential category, which kills his value in a lot of formats, but another Top 20 isn’t out of the question.
26. Bubba Wallace
Wallace delivered a career-best 21st-place finish at Darlington over the weekend, and he is sitting on a respectable 17.6 average finish for his career. I’m skeptical that he can continue to finish in and around the Top 20 as the season progresses, but a mid-pack finish isn’t out of the question Wednesday night.
27. Christopher Bell
It was another long afternoon for Bell, who ended up 24th and was involved in a couple of accidents. The rookie isn’t coming close to living up the hype, and at this point, you can’t expect more than a Top 25 out of him.
28. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Of course it was Stenhouse who crashed on Lap 1 in NASCAR’s return to action, and while it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him wreck again Wednesday, he is still someone you will want exposure to at the DFS sites. He will have to start dead last, which means he could pile up a ton of place differential points.
29. Michael McDowell
McDowell is quietly having a decent start to 2020, at least by the standards of Front Row Motorsports. He finished 23rd at Darlington Sunday, and he has cracked the Top 25 in four of the five races, gaining six or more spots three times. McDowell’s starting spot Wednesday hurts his DFS appeal a bit, but he could be worth a roll of the dice as a GPP punt play.
30. Daniel Suarez
He survived an early wreck and ended up 25th at Darlington on Sunday, gaining 12 spots in the process. Suarez owns a 26.0 average finish in his four starts this year, but rolling off 25th Sunday kills his differential upside. I don’t think he has much fantasy value.