It has been a long couple of months since the coronavirus pandemic brought the sports world and much of the country to a halt. We still have no idea when some semblance of normalcy will return and what the new normal will look like, but for the time being, we have a reason to be excited.
NASCAR is back this weekend!
The Cup Series will return to the track for the first time since Phoenix in early March, and while fans won't be allowed to attend Sunday's race at Darlington Raceway, it will still be nice to have cars back on the track.
Of course, the return of NASCAR also means the return of Fantasy NASCAR. Both season-long and DFS contests will resume this weekend, and I can't wait to write articles, build lineups and enjoy 400 miles of action at "The Lady in Black" on Sunday.
NASCAR still has some details to work out. There are no plans for any practice or qualifying for Sunday's race, and it remains to be seen how the starting lineup will be set. Owner points is the likeliest option, but a random draw isn't out of the question. Ideally, we know the lineup more than a few hours before the race, but we will have to wait and see.
Teams were just recently given clearance to return to their shops and prepare cars, and drivers were not allowed any practice time. The results from the races before the break should be a decent indicator of which drivers and teams will unload with speed at Darlington, and as always, I took a look back at recent results at the track when compiling the rankings.
1. Kevin Harvick
With plenty of unknowns as NASCAR prepares to restart the 2020 season, I don't think you can go wrong with Harvick. He had finished in the Top 10 in each of the first four races before the postponement, and he has never finished outside the Top 10 in six Darlington starts with Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick has a 4.2 average finish and five Top 5s in those starts, including a fourth-place run last year.
2. Kyle Busch
Busch led 118 laps and finished third at Darlington last year, and over the last 10 races here, he has compiled a 6.4 average finish. He hasn't finished worse than 11th during that stretch, and he has eight finishes of seventh or better. Busch's raw talent should also come in handy with the no-practice setup.
3. Denny Hamlin
Darlington has always been one of his strongest tracks, and in 14 starts, Hamlin has two wins, 11 Top 10s and a 7.8 average finish. He has seven finishes of sixth or better in the last 10 races alone, leading double-digit laps in four of the last five races. Hamlin should be a Top 5 option this weekend.
4. Brad Keselowski
He won at Darlington in 2018, and he followed up the victory by leading 19 laps and finishing fifth here a year ago. Keselowski has led double-digit laps and finished in the Top 10 in four of his last five Darlington starts, cracking the Top 5 three times. He should offer a high floor for fantasy owners this weekend.
5. Joey Logano
Although Darlington doesn't rank as his best track, Logano does have three Top 5s in his last five starts here, including a runner-up effort in 2018. He also won two of the first four races to start 2020, so there is a good bet he unloads with a fast No. 22 Ford this weekend.
6. Chase Elliott
Elliott has been solid, not spectacular, at Darlington to date, finishing 11th or better in three of his five starts and logging a Top 5 in the 2018 race. However, he had one of the fastest cars week in and week out to open 2020, leading a series-high 186 laps through the first four races and leading 20-plus laps three times. Expect Elliott to be a major player this weekend.
7. Martin Truex Jr.
His luck was absolutely terrible through the first four races, and despite leading laps in three of those events, his best finish was 14th. His fortunes could change this weekend at Darlington where Truex won in 2016 and has led more than 20 laps in three of his last four starts. He's a high-risk, high-reward fantasy option.
8. Erik Jones
Jones has had a great feel for Darlington since breaking into the Cup Series. He has a 4.7 average finish in his three starts, logging a Top 5 finish in his debut and leading 79 laps in a win last year. This is a great track to target him in the Driver Group Game and Fantasy Live.
9. Kurt Busch
A wheelman like Busch should be able to more than hold his own at a driver's track like Darlington without any practice. He has finished seventh or better in four of the last five races here, and he led 94 laps in last year's event. Busch should be on your radar in all fantasy formats.
10. Ryan Blaney
Blaney has managed back-to-back Top 15s at Darlington, but he is still looking for a breakout performance at the track. After leading laps in three of the first four races at looking like a weekly Top 5 threat before the season was delayed, I wouldn't be surprised if he showed some muscle this weekend. At worst, I expect him to challenge for a Top 10.
11. Jimmie Johnson
The seven-time champ was showing signs of a resurgence prior to the break, and he currently sits fifth in points. Granted, he hasn't had a Top 10 at Darlington since 2014, but Hendrick Motorsports has shown enough speed overall to give me confidence that Johnson can contend for a Top 10 this weekend.
12. Alex Bowman
His record at Darlington leaves a lot to be desired, and Bowman has finished 23rd and 18th in his two starts here in the No. 88. On the flip side, he has shown tons of speed in 2020, and he already has a win under his belt. He's a little riskier than some other some other drivers I have ranked in this range, but there's plenty of upside.
13. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer was solid out of the gates in 2020, posting an 11.5 average finish over the first four races. His record at Darlington doesn't jump off the page, but he did finish sixth here last year. He could flirt with a Top 10 this weekend.
14. Matt DiBenedetto
After four forgettable performances a Darlington, DiBenedetto had decent equipment at his disposal last year and delivered an eighth-place finish. His offseason move to the No. 21 Ford has paid immediate dividends, and he brings an 11.8 average finish into this weekend's race. He's a sleeper Top 10 candidate.
15. Aric Almirola
He had a little momentum going prior to the break, logging back-to-back eighth-place finishes at Auto Club and Phoenix. Almirola has never cracked the Top 10 at Darlington, and he has finished 14th and 17th in his two starts here with Stewart-Haas. He's a safe bet to finish in or around the Top 15, but his ceiling is limited.
16. William Byron
Byron has a pole under his belt a Darlington, but he has finished 35th and 21st in his two starts at the track. He owns a 21.8 average finish so far in 2020, but he's shown a lot more speed than his finishes would suggest. Per Motorsports Analytics, Byron's No. 24 team sits 10th in Central Speed. He's a high-upside midrange play this weekend.
17. Chris Buescher
He just quietly logs decent finishes on a weekly basis, and the trend should continue this weekend. Buescher has finished 17th or better in all four races in 2020, and he has finished 17th or better in all four Cup starts at Darlington, finishing 13th and 12th the last two years. Look for Buescher to hang around the Top 15.
18. Tyler Reddick
Reddick has been the most impressive rookie in 2020, finishing 18th at Las Vegas and 11th at Auto Club before cutting a tire while running in the Top 5 at Phoenix. He will make his Darlington debut this weekend, but based on the small sample we've seen, it is clear that he offers the most upside among the Group C options in the Driver Group Game.
19. Austin Dillon
I'll be the first to take shots at Dillon, but he's actually been decent at Darlington. He has a 12.5 average finish in six starts at the track, finishing 16th or better five times and 12th or better four times. Dillon could be a decent sleeper play this weekend, especially at the DFS sites.
20. Ryan Newman
His overall record at Darlington is rock solid, but Newman has finished 19th and 23rd in his last two starts at the track. Throw in the fact that it will be his first race since suffering a head injury in that horrific wreck at Daytona, and fantasy owners should keep their expectations modest.
21. Cole Custer
Since suffering an engine issue in the opener at Daytona, Custer has reeled off three straight Top 20s, logging a Top 10 at Phoenix right before the break. At the very least, he should challenge for a mid-pack finish, and Custer offers a decent floor as a Group C option in the DGG.
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
He used pit strategy to snag a third-place finish at Las Vegas, but Stenhouse has a been a mid-pack driver in the other three races in 2020. He has never had a ton of success at Darlington at the Cup level either. A Top 20 is probably the best-case scenario for Stenhouse this weekend.
23. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth finds himself out of retirement and in the No. 42 machine after Kyle Larson decided to torpedo his career. There is obviously going to be a learning curve for the veteran, especially since he has never run the reduced-horsepower package and won't have any practice time. However, he's typically a safe, solid performer, and he will be in solid equipment. I'd hold off on using him this weekend, but since he has been slotted in Group C for the Driver Group Game, he is going to have serious value over the long haul.
24. Christopher Bell
After two dominant seasons at the XFINITY level, Bell's transition to the Cup Series has been a tough one. He has a 29.0 average finish through the first four races, and he has yet to crack the Top 20. Better days are ahead for the rookie, and while I'd wait until he finds a rhythm before using him in a lot of season-long leagues, he could have a bunch of upside in leagues that include place differential points. Bell would start 34th if the field is lined up by owner points.
25. Ty Dillon
It has been an up-and-down start to the season for Dillon, but he has been decent at Darlington. He has finished 21st or better in all three starts, posting an 18.0 average finish. Dillon could be a sneaky Top 20 play and a solid source of cap relief at the DFS sites if he starts deeper in the field. He'd start 25th if the field is set by owner points
26. John Hunter Nemechek
We've seen both the good and the bad of Nemechek's aggressive style this year, but at the end of the day, he has cracked the Top 25 in all four races. He knows how to get the most of his equipment, and if he starts around the 30th spot, I'll dial him up at DraftKings for cap relief.
27. Bubba Wallace
Wallace has struggled in both of his starts at Darlington, but he was off to a surprisingly solid start in 2020, cracking the Top 20 in three of the first four races. I'm skeptical that the success will continue, but Wallace could be worth a flier in GPP contests.
28. Ryan Preece
Preece finally saw some light at the end of the tunnel that was a miserable start to 2020 when he finished 18th at Phoenix, but his fantasy value is still shaky, at best. Between the time off and his lackluster results at the intermediate ovals at the Cup level, I'm not expecting much out of him this weekend.
29. Michael McDowell
He's enjoyed a decent start to 2020, finishing 22nd or better in three of the first four races. He also has two Top 20s in the last three races at Darlington. McDowell has never been close to consistent, but if the field is set by points, he's another potential punt option for GPP contests.
30. Corey LaJoie
After a Top 10 run at Daytona and 16th-place effort at Las Vegas, LaJoie came back to Earth with poor finishes at Auto Cub and Phoenix. This time still isn't showing much raw speed, and Top 25 finishes remain his ceiling. He's no more than a DFS punt play.