NASCAR is nearing a return.
The stock car sanctioning body is set to run seven races in 11 days over its top three series starting Sunday, when the Cup Series runs its first of four scheduled races from May 17-27.
The Cup Series is NASCAR’s top level and the series that most people refer to when using the term “NASCAR.” If you’re itching to watch sports this weekend and excited to sit down and watch a NASCAR race that you normally wouldn’t, this post is your primer. You’ll find everything you need to know before the Cup Series takes the green flag at Darlington Raceway at 3:30 p.m. ET on Fox.
Forty cars are entered into Sunday’s race. NASCAR typically runs practice sessions and qualifying before a race but isn’t doing that on Sunday. The first lap of Sunday’s 400-mile race will be the first lap drivers have raced in anything resembling race conditions since the final lap of a March 8 race at Phoenix Raceway won by Joey Logano.
Yeah, there’s some potential for things to get hairy early, though drivers could elect to be patient given the long layoff.
The race will be broken up into three stages and points are awarded on a descending 10-1 basis for the top-10 finishers in each of the first two stages. These points go towards a driver’s total in the overall standings, which help determine who does and doesn’t make the playoffs after 26 races.
If that sounds complicated and gimmicky, don’t worry. It is!
The Cup Series season is 36 races long. Sixteen drivers qualify for the 10-race playoffs via winning races or their points position at the end of the first 26 races. Over the first nine races of the playoff, the 16-driver field is eventually pared down to four, who race heads up for the title during the final race of the season on Nov. 8 at Phoenix. The highest finisher among the four wins the title.
See, we told you this wasn’t simple.
It’s important to note the significant coronavirus precautions NASCAR has in place for the next seven races (and likely the foreseeable future). There will be no fans in attendance anytime soon and everyone at the track is being asked to wear a mask when not wearing a helmet that covers their faces. NASCAR is also separating team members as much as possible through compartmentalization strategies.
Xfinity and Truck Series return soon
NASCAR’s No. 2 series is the Xfinity Series and the No. 3 series is the Truck Series. Consider them the AAA and AA baseball equivalents of stock car racing, though that’s a very rough comparison. Cup Series drivers can compete in the lower series on a limited basis. The Xfinity Series races on May 19 at Darlington and the Truck Series races on May 26 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Darlington and Charlotte are replacing races
NASCAR is pushing to resume racing so soon because it wants to run every single race across all three series’ schedules. Since sponsorship and television money is such a significant revenue stream for NASCAR and its teams, auto racing is arguably the sport most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
NASCAR realizes that, especially as it and its teams were already experiencing financial crunches before the pandemic began. Races need to be run to keep teams afloat and jobs in existence. And they also need to be run in an attempt to capitalize on the barren sports landscape.
That’s why Darlington and Charlotte are each hosting two Cup Series races over the next 11 days. Darlington is the site of Cup Series races on May 17 and 20 and Charlotte will host races on May 24 and 27. Most NASCAR teams are based in Charlotte, and Darlington (some 90 miles away) is a doable roundtrip drive in a day away. By running races at those two tracks, NASCAR can make up races that were postponed during its two-month hiatus without hotel stays and long trips.
Where the season stands right now
NASCAR completed four of 36 Cup Series races before the pandemic. The Daytona 500 was won by Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano won at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Alex Bowman won the third race of the season at Auto Club Speedway in California. All three of those drivers will make the playoff field.
Kevin Harvick is the points leader. He has one more point than Logano does.
If NASCAR is able to complete all four of its Cup Series races through May 27, it will still need to make up seven more races by the end of the season. NASCAR has not announced when those races will be made up or even where it will race on Sunday, May 31. That race is scheduled to be at Kansas Speedway, but it’s incredibly likely that NASCAR will race somewhere within a short drive of Charlotte instead.
Ryan Newman will be back
Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 came as Ryan Newman went crashing off Ryan Blaney’s bumper in the seconds before the checkered flag in a horrific crash that immediately put NASCAR at the forefront of mainstream discussion.
Newman was extricated from his car by safety workers and immediately taken to a hospital. He suffered a head injury in the crash but was able to walk out of the hospital three days later.
Sunday’s race at Darlington is Newman’s first race back since that crash. He has been cleared to race by his doctors and NASCAR’s medical staff and will return to the No. 6 car for Roush Fenway Racing.
Matt Kenseth in for Kyle Larson
The season will resume without Kyle Larson. The young star was fired from his ride at Chip Ganssi Racing after he said the N-word during a virtual race that was broadcast on NASCAR’s website on Easter night. The day after Larson’s slur, his car’s two main sponsors Credit One and McDonald’s disassociated themselves from him and Ganassi fired him a day later after he was suspended by both the team and NASCAR.
Larson, 27, won’t race on Sunday and doesn’t seem likely to race in the series in the foreseeable future. He still has to reapply for reinstatement and, more importantly, needs to find a team to field a car for him.
Before he said the racial slur, Larson was set to be the most coveted free agent of the last 10 years in NASCAR. He had multiple top-tier teams coveting his services and was set to cash in on a contract that would make him one of the higher-paid drivers in the series.
Instead, he may not return to NASCAR for a while.
In his place is 48-year-old Matt Kenseth. The 2003 Cup Series champion — Kenseth won the last NASCAR title before the playoffs were implemented in 2004 — is back for his second replacement stint in the last three years since he stopped racing full-time at the end of the 2017 season. NASCAR has given Kenseth a waiver to be eligible to make the playoffs despite missing the first four races.
Pick a driver to root for
NASCAR is far more fun to watch as a fan when you have a driver to cheer for. You need to pick a driver if you’re going to commit yourself to watching more than just a few minutes or highlights on your preferred television or internet medium.
If you want to go with the reigning champion and the best driver in the series, go with Kyle Busch. He’s also polarizing. If you want to pick the most popular driver, the pick is Chase Elliott. He’s taken over the mantle from Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the series’ most popular.
If you’re looking to be a fan of a beer-sponsored car driven by a past champion, 2014 Cup champ Kevin Harvick’s car is primarily sponsored by Busch Light. If you’re looking for a driver in his prime still searching for his first title, Denny Hamlin is your guy. Hamlin has 38 wins and eight finishes in the top six in the standings without a title.
If you want to go with a legend in his final season before you make a long-term commitment to a driver, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is retiring at the end of 2020. Johnson missed the playoffs for the first time in 2019 and hasn’t won a race in nearly three years.
Prepare for some wackiness
As any longtime NASCAR fan can attest, something bizarre and unexpected is bound to happen. This is a series where cars go in circles and wacky things happen on a semi-regular basis. A driver in an uncompetitive car won a race at Daytona in 2019 because of a well-timed lightning strike. Teams will put tape on their spoilers to get an advantage. Drivers will be accused of stealing each others’ haulers and equipment and also be accused of buying stolen equipment from each other.
Oh, a driver also infamously spun in 2013 due to “poison oak” and the ramifications led to Jeff Gordon getting added to the playoffs as an extra driver and the shutdown of the team at the center of the itchy arm controversy.
If you watch long enough, you’re bound to be entertained by something unexpectedly weird.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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