Podium Preview: Real Heroes 400 and Darlington 500k

As NASCAR prepares for its return with the Real Heroes 400, Kyle Busch's crew prepares for Darlington. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As NASCAR prepares for its return with the Real Heroes 400, Kyle Busch’s crew prepares for Darlington. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s been a long 70 days since the last NASCAR Cup Series race. Since the FanShield 500k at Phoenix Raceway, the world that we knew greatly changed. Today’s Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway holds as much importance as any pivotal moment in NASCAR and sports history.The longingness of closeness changed to the necessity of distance. A promising season that started with a heartstopping moment for Ryan Newman at Daytona turned into a wondrous miracle. The strength and drive possessed by Newman was one that all of us adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, racing returns and a feeling of anticipation, uncertainty, bravery, and interest permeates around the world of NASCAR. For most of us, we’re covering the action remotely until the time comes when we can all come together. For now, we can do so virtually with this preview.

Happily, starting again on this day and each week, The Podium Finish’s panelists, Ashley Hobbs, Cody ShoppeIsabelle BeecyKobe LambethLuis Torres, Matteo MarcheschiMatt SisolerSean FolsomStephen ConleyTerra Jones, and yours truly will share their thoughts on the latest happenings in NASCAR.  This weekend, we consider the return of NASCAR from two angles! Also, eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series racer Michael Guariglia takes readers around a lap of the Cup Series of the week, Darlington Raceway!

Podium Preview
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Question 1
Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 prior to last year's Southern 500. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski and his No. 2 prior to last year’s Southern 500. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Sunday’s Darlington 400 marks the return of NASCAR following the two-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How momentous and critical is this race not only for NASCAR?

Sisoler : This is a big moment for sports because NASCAR teams are somewhat the biggest in terms of numbers, which means if they can pull this off without anyone getting sick, it could clear a path for other sports to resume or, in the case of MLB, start, their seasons. I know a lot of fans have been chomping at the bit to get back to action. While it may not be exactly how some envisioned it, it is something. And American sports fans have had little to nothing for the past few weeks.

Jones :  It’s huge on so many levels, and I truly feel “all eyes” will be on the sport over the next few weeks. Many will be fans happy to have their favorite sport return. But many more will be those in decision-making positions, watching and waiting to see not only how the sport is handled, but the outcome, in terms of health, over the coming weeks.

I firmly believe NASCAR has gone to great lengths to do everything they can to get this right in an attempt to get cars back on track, albeit without fans and media for the time being, in the safest way possible. We can only hope these actions are the stepping stones to the next phase of the “new normal.”

Folsom : The return is huge for NASCAR, with them being the only sport returning to what might be now the “new” normal. Everyone, as in NASCAR fans and even people just looking for something different to watch, will be watching this race. It will be something to see what kind of changes have been made since all this pandemic has happened.  

Tiongson :  I view NASCAR’s return as a truly important event not only in the world of sports but for our world. We’ve all contended with the pandemic as healthily as possible. We’re all trying to find that silver lining to get us through these days. Not only as a journalist, but as an actual human being, I think this could be pivotal for NASCAR.

While I know it will be a strange, temporary new normal, I am hopeful the right decisions will be made. For at least a few hours, twice a week, we have racing. Hope can still prevail in the face of darkness.

Shoppe :  The whole country will be watching as the first sport makes a return! Some say it’s too soon, others say running an event without fans in attendance is a waste. However you feel, this is a big opportunity for Nascar. A lot more eyes then usual will be on the race this Sunday and until other sports are able to return. I think NASCAR is doing it the right way. And with this opportunity comes lots of pressure for the whole industry to have success in these coming weeks. It is our time to shine so let’s hope these guys bring it! 

Torres :  At this point, this is a do-or-die situation for any future large gatherings. If the protocol goes seamlessly at both Darlington and Charlotte, then everyone (notably INDYCAR with their season opener at Texas June 6) could breathe a sigh of relief. However, if there’s any sign of symptoms following the 11 days of NASCAR action, it’ll be a bad look for all parties which will be bad for anyone involved in the sport.

Right now, normalcy won’t happen until we can get people into the stands, the press can safely cover racing the way it’s meant to be and photographers from all walks of life to provide excellent work. In the meantime, the mass restrictions set in stone, like it or not, is the best we can do during tremendous turmoil in our world. NASCAR is definitely not exempted from this situation.

Question 2
Jimmie Johnson comes to mind with a driver physically fit for the onslaught of races.

Jimmie Johnson comes to mind with a driver physically fit for the onslaught of races.

Given the grind that drivers and teams will endure starting with Sunday’s Real Heroes 400, who is most prepared?

Marcheschi :  With so little time to make improvements between races, and the loss of qualifying and practice, the answer will probably lie in the first four races of the season. The name that jumps out to me is Hendrick. They have three of the top five in the standings, and already have a win from Alex Bowman. Penske might be a force as well, with Joey Logano having won two of the four races run. Another fast Ford is Kevin Harvick, the current points leader. His speed off the truck can be blinding. His competition has come to learn this since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Overall, this grind seems to favor the most well-prepared and resourceful teams and the most experienced drivers… rookies beware!

Hobbs :  Ahhhh the hot topic! While I am grateful for racing to be back, I really hope the drivers can prepare physically and mentally for 1020 (less overtime) miles of racing in 11 days. Most especially, the biggest challenge comes with the Coca-Cola 600. That race alone gets a week of preparation; and to do that in half the time and then speed the recovery for the next race, that will only play to drivers in great physical shape. Jimmie Johnson comes to mind – he is probably the fittest driver in the garage. Matt DiBenedetto does workout a lot too so he should be better than most. Basically, if you are in excellent physical health, you’ll feel the exhaustion but not as much as someone who does the minimal working out (or none at all).

Beecy :  I think many of the more athletic veterans will be most prepared. It’s a lot of racing in a short amount of time, so physical endurance/stamina will likely be important. I know Jimmie Johnson likes doing triathlons and all that in his spare time. So he might be one of the most prepared from that standpoint. Plus, Matt DiBenedetto is pretty well known for his crazy workout videos on social media, so he might do well too.

Lambeth :  Right off the top of my head, I can confidently say that Jimmie Johnson will be the most physically prepared driver for this stretch of races at Darlington and Charlotte. Johnson is a seven-time champion for a reason. He trains like one. In general, I think everyone will be on their A-game and ready for the grind.

Kyle Busch may be a little worn out. He plans to run all seven races, including Trucks and Xfinity, in the next two weeks. It will likely be worth it. Certainly, it is almost a guarantee that Rowdy should bring home a trophy or two.

Conley :  From a physical standpoint, I think most of these guys are fine and ready to race. We’ve heard drivers before say they get out of the 600 and say they’d be ready to race again tomorrow. Look at someone like Kyle Busch that has done a triple in different states, albeit, several years ago.

He still has the ability and willingness to run on a daily basis. Jimmie Johnson would be a firm bet from a physical standpoint. But, I think this will come down to the shop preparation. Who has a car ready to race and fast right off the bat that won’t have to fight with it. Physical fitness with the crews, who can jump right back over the wall and not have issues. This would not be the time to bet on the young Cup rookies who are still getting acclimated to longer races.

It’s great to talk about racing again here on The Podium Finish! Let’s rewind to early March and review the race and points reports from the FanShield 500k at Phoenix!
Who remembers how things went down at Phoenix?

Who remembers how things went down at Phoenix?

We're coming for that blasted machine!

We’re coming for that blasted machine!

Now, Ashley Hobbs takes a crack at the stats worth considering with the Real Heroes 400 and Darlington 500k!

Consider how your favorite team fares at Darlington.

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Busch and Truex seem poised for Darlington.

Busch and Truex seem poised for Darlington.

Here's the trends at Darlington in the past 10 races.

Here’s the trends at Darlington in the past 10 races.

Now, here's the trends at Darlington in the past five races.

Now, here’s the trends at Darlington in the past five races.

By all means, our machine favors Kevin Harvick.

By all means, our machine favors Kevin Harvick.

While most of us are scribes or photographers, one of us actually races, even in a virtual setting! Michael Guariglia takes us around a lap around at Darlington!
A Lap Around Darlington with Michael Guariglia
Michael Guariglia knows all about the fast line from his eNASCAR competition!

Michael Guariglia knows all about the fast line from his eNASCAR competition!

Darlington Raceway is a challenging track just making one lap. Let alone, consider the staggering 500+ laps the NASCAR Cup Series drivers will endure over the period of four days. Justin Allgaier once said that you can never have the setup “perfect” at the track “Too Tough to Tame.” Today, I’ll tell you what it takes to tame the Lady in Black. 

The lap begins setting your sights to the steep 25-degree banking of turns one and two. This end of the 1.366 mile speedway is not like most circuits on the NASCAR calendar. Since this end of the speedway is wide-open on the throttle with the high-downforce, low horsepower package, turns one and two are all about momentum. 

When entering turn one, the car needs to be as close to the wall as possible to ensure a straight entry. Usually, a good point to aim for after turning into the corner is the dotted white line just where the track transitions from the straight to the corner. After entering turn one low, let the car drift up to the wall without collecting a signature Darlington Stripe on the way up.

Then, stay close to the wall through the center and then cut down from the top, sometimes below the apron, on exit to carry the momentum to the backstretch. It is crucial to turn down early as you exit the corner because the racing groove tightens up off turn two. Turning off the wall too late can tear up the race car with a solid hit to the safer barrier. 

Now off turn two, it’s time to battle the sun heading down the backstretch. While it may not be a factor to start for Sunday’s race, the sun will be a part of how the drivers will tackle the last stage. Teams will definitely have an extra layer of shade either on the visor of the driver or the front windshield of the car. Either way, the drivers will have to be prepared to battle the elements to set up for turn three. 

Once again, the car needs to be as close to the wall on entry as possible. There is a point in the outside wall where the wall juts out on the entry of the corner. This is normal the braking point with the turn-in point being just before hitting the brake pedal. This allows the car to enter in the middle of the corner and point the car where it needs to go in the center.

Then, similarly to the center of turn one and two, let the car drift up to the top and throttle back down to drive off the corner. For turn four, the goal is to keep the wall up towards the wall, unlike turn two, to help carry the speed off the corner. This is different because the speeds are much slower on this end and the banking is paramount to keeping momentum. This end of the speedway is where the most Darlington Stripes are found so usually, drivers will under-drive the car to start the race to keep the car in one piece. 

In all, that’s a lap around Darlington Raceway! This racetrack provides for precision and sheer will to shine in how close a driver is willing to get to the wall to keep speed in their car. When you tune into the race on Sunday, try and see what different lines drivers run on the slick and greasy track. The variation of lines is interesting to watch, allowing for the classic “comers and goers” throughout the race. 

Lastly, here’s our picks for Sunday’s Real Heroes 400 at Darlington. Our picks for Wednesday night’s Darlington 500k will publish on Tuesday night!
The picks are here!

The picks are here!

Sisoler : With a reset of the season, no one has momentum from the first set of races. I’m leaning towards” The Closer,” Kevin Harvick, taking the first of the three checkered flags in Cup Series competition at Darlington this year. 

Marcheschi :  When it comes to speed off the truck, the duo of Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers never disappoints. He knows how to conquer the Lady in Black, and will emerge victorious once again in NASCAR’s return.

Hobbs :  I like patterns, and every other year has been a Joe Gibbs Racing year – including last year. I am sticking with the trend and sticking with a Ford driver in Kevin Harvick.

Folsom :  Kevin Harvick.

Jones :  I know all the drivers are itching to get back behind the wheel, and after a few tough weeks in iRacing, I think Kyle Busch will be more than ready to remind fans and drivers alike that he has no issue getting work done on an actual track. While he only has one win at the Lady in Black, he does have 10 top-10 finishes in 15 starts. He will be ready to come out loud this Sunday afternoon. 

Tiongson :  If there’s a driver who’s ready for the wear and tear of the next two weeks, it’s the man who’s been quite successful at Darlington with three Cup Series wins. Jimmie Johnson, let’s break that winless streak.

Beecy :  I’m going with Jimmie Johnson since he’s done well at Darlington. Plus, as I mentioned, he’s one of the ones who seems most prepared for the next few weeks.

Shoppe :  Denny Hamlin will win Nascar’s return race In Darlington because there is no remote control that could turn off his real car! 

Lambeth :  After winning the pole via random draw, I think Brad Keselowski will find victory lane in NASCAR’s return to racing.

Conley : I think success from iRacing carries over. William Byron tames the Lady In Black!  

Here’s our Wednesday night race picks!
Wednesday's Toyota 500k at Darlington race picks prove quite aggressive!

Wednesday’s Toyota 500k at Darlington race picks prove quite aggressive!

Sisoler : My pick of Harvick paid off on Sunday, but seeing as he’s got to start 20th for the 500-kilometer (310 mile) race Wednesday night, it’ll be tricky for him to do it again, especially with the track time and data from Sunday’s run to help teams develop better setups. Brad Keselowski ran solidly Sunday before fading towards the end of the race, look for him to avoid that and take home the checkered flag in this one!

Jones :  My pick for this shorter race is Ryan Blaney. He has yet to win a “traditional” race in the Cup series. He’s won at the Tricky Triangle of Pocono, the ROVAL, and Talladega Superspeedway. It is only fitting that he would nab a win at a great vintage track with a quirkier race length.

Marcheschi :  With 400 miles behind him, it will be Alex Bowman, who was fast all day on Sunday, that will take the win on Wednesday. Bowman finished top-three in both stages Sunday, leading 41 laps and ending the day second. Bowman will grab his third career win, and his second of 2020 as he emerges as a championship contender.

Conley :  Ford has had a strong start and after coming close in race one of Darlington, Joey Logano grabs his 3rd win of the season.

TPF Stats: It is very hard for the machine to ignore the fact that Kevin Harvick is one of the best at Darlington and he won the race a few short days ago.

Hobbs :  There is so much to consider for this race! Clearly Kevin Harvick didn’t miss a beat and returned with a bang. Matt Kenseth had an amazing debut, finishing 10th. Some young guys and rookies were up there all day. But, a night race plus a shorter race could mean a whole different Lady in Black. And I cannot ignore numbers, so this makes it more difficult. So, with all that, I am going to keep an eye on Denny Hamlin Wednesday night.

Torres :   Shorter distance could pay dividends to those who have a quick race mindset at times, but not this time. I’m looking at Joe Gibbs Racing pulling off the win under different conditions, so expect another visit to victory lane from Denny Hamlin, who has nothing but momentum with his Daytona 500 triumph and two iRacing wins.

Tiongson :  It’s a shorter race and this could play a factor for a driver who’s learned a great deal from Sunday’s 400-miler. Look for William Byron to nab his first Cup Series win and apply lessons he’s learned from the iRacing world!

Lambeth :  In the shorter race at Darlington, I expect the iRacing wiz kid to earn one final dance with the Lady in Black. William Byron will earn his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in style!

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Real Heroes 400 and Darlington 500k!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Let’s stay connected as we focus on getting back together on the track soon!  

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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