By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Arguably the two most talked about drivers of the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series season made their racing returns in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 and showcased they’re far from reaching their career climax. Those two were the series champion Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman, the winningest driver that season.
Kenseth made his debut with Chip Ganassi Racing and had a consistently solid top-10 car throughout the 293-lap race. Racing rust was non-existent as Kenseth brought home a 10th place finish, marking his second straight top-10 finish dating back to his last Cup race at Homestead in 2018 and the 330th of his legendary career.
Prior to the race, Kenseth was the most recent spring Darlington winner when he scored his lone win at “The Lady in Black” in 2013. While hewasn’t able to replicate his performance from seven years ago, his first thoughts after running the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was the sport for coming back at full swing after 70 days without racing due to COVID-19.
“First off, thanks to NASCAR and everyone else involved in working to make today happen,” said Kenseth.
He followed it up by responding how his afternoon went from the opening laps to learning how the car handled at the 1.355-mile circuit that would help him out going into Wednesday’s Toyota 500K at the very same track.
“Overall, today turned out really well for us. The first few laps today were kind of nerve-racking, but then it was sort of back to racing and thinking about what we needed to be better,” Kenseth on his afternoon. “Everyone on the team has worked extremely hard the last couple weeks to prepare for today, and I’m proud of what we accomplished today.
“I learned a lot throughout the race about the way the car handles and reacts to different situations, and it was nice to really get acclimated to the Camaro and the team in a real racing environment. It’s always a good feeling to get a top-10 at a place like Darlington, but to have done it under these circumstances feels that much better.
“I still have some room to improve, but today shows all of us we have a lot to look forward to as the season continues. It was great to be back racing, and we can’t thank everyone at Credit One Bank, McDonald’s, Clover, AdventHealth and Chevy for the support you’ve given to the team.”
One driver took notice on Kenseth’s performance and that was the now 50-time Cup Series winner Kevin Harvick.
Following his win at Darlington, Harvick was vocal about how Kenseth should’ve never been in that situation where he had to leave the sport twice since 2017.
“He should have never quit. Matt was winning races when he retired,” Harvick on Kenseth’s top-10 finish. “I think as you look at that whole situation of when you he got kind of moved out of (Joe) Gibbs, Matt is going to be a huge part of that race team and making Chip Ganassi Racing better. He’s going to be great for the sponsors.
“I think as you look at that, I mean, experience and skill go a long way in our sport. “If you have those two things, like Matt does, you’re going to be successful. “You don’t just forget how to do that. Matt is a pro, a very good one at that.”
Perhaps the biggest storyline that didn’t involved COVID-19 was Newman, who made his first start back with Roush Fenway Racing since his horrific last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 three months ago.
Newman’s day went well where he scored two stage points after crossing the line in Stage 1 in the ninth spot. However, his race had a roadblock on Lap 251 when a tire went down on his No. 6 Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang had a tire go down in Turn 4 before slightly spinning out alone in Turn 1, bringing out the 10th and final caution of the race.
“The Rocket Man” went on to score a 15th place result in his comeback race, the best finish for the No. 6 team since that horrific Monday night at Daytona where he ended up ninth.
“Really proud of everybody’s effort today to unload the Oscar Mayer Ford as good as we did,” said Newman. “We started pretty strong and for the first 180 laps or so we were really good, then we got the car too free and we needed it to turn better, but we never got the front to work and made the back loose.
“Overall, great to be back in the race car, proud of how everybody worked, not just our team, but everyone in NASCAR to break the ice on getting the world back in motion.”
Since both drivers finished in the top-20, their starting positions will be based on an invert. Therefore, Kenseth will roll off 11th while Newman is slated to start in the sixth position in the 228-lap race.
During Thursday’s teleconference, Newman best described running two races in a span of four days, at the same circuit no less, is nothing new nor a big deal to the 2008 Daytona 500 champion. However, it won’t be easy for his race team due to the short turnaround they’re not accustomed to.
“I’ve done several races in several days in a row before, that’s no big deal,” said Newman. “I feel like the way the schedule is set, doing the one-day shows, you wouldn’t be doing something that we physically weren’t capable of or asked upon us by everybody that’s involved, and that’s from driving the race car to the hauler drivers and the pit crews and everybody involved. So I think that’s not a big deal. It’s not an easy ask, but I don’t think that’s insurmountable.”
Live coverage of Wednesday’s race at Darlington begins at 7:30 pm EST on FS1. Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s race and will start in 20th while Ryan Preece is scheduled to start on the pole.