There was a 26-year age difference between the ninth- and 10th-place drivers, John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Kenseth, respectively, in NASCAR’s return race Sunday at Darlington.
Although almost three decades separated them, one thing united them — neither driver was expected to place as well as he did. Kenseth, 48, returned to the track for the first time on Sunday after a yearlong retirement from racing. Cup rookie Nemechek, 22, drove in just his fifth official event as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s top series. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, neither driver competed having had any practice in the two months leading up to the race.
Kenseth surpassed his own expectations.
“I don’t know why, but I just had 12th in my head,” Kenseth said. “And I would have been pretty happy with being 12th my first day, so to finish 10th I thought was really, really good.”
“We came in with no expectations,” Nemechek said after the race. “We just kind of had the mindset to run every lap and learn the most that we possibly could.”
Darlington’s top-10 was rounded out by other perennial points leaders, including Alex Bowman (second place), Chase Elliott (fourth) and Denny Hamlin (fifth), all of whom have already captured either a race or stage win this season. Cup points leader Kevin Harvick, 44, took the checkered flag for a milestone 50th career Cup Series victory.
While veteran drivers like Harvick, Kenseth and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, 44, who nearly won the first stage of the race before crashing out in the final stage lap, were on display last weekend, the series rookies also made their mark.
Like Nemechek, who is currently ranking 22nd in points standings, rookie Tyler Reddick placed in the top-10 for the first time this season. Reddick, ranked 20th in points, finished in seventh after racing from a 29th-place start.
Kenseth said he watched back-to-back Xfinity Series champion Reddick race in last year’s Xfinity championship at Homestead-Miami, and called Reddick the “difference-maker.”
“A lot of times, everybody is pretty good when you get to this level,” Kenseth said. “But when I watched Homestead, he’s just incredibly talented. Especially at tracks where you have to run high.”
Reddick, the No. 8 Chevrolet driver, received high praise from another NASCAR veteran, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He continues to amaze me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “ ... He’s not making these rookie mistakes that are taking him out of the running, especially at a place like Darlington where it’s easy.”
Reddick has always been a highly touted rookie name in the Cup Series, along with last year’s top Xfinity finishers, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell, who make up the “Big Three” of the rookie class. Sunday, Custer (ranked 24th in points) finished 22nd, and Bell (32nd in points) finished 24th.
Those three, in addition to Nemechek, who started 34th on a grid of 40 drivers and raced his way into the top-10, are proving they can compete with best, even driving for smaller, less well-funded teams. The rookie class will likely continue to shine as drivers’ comfort and confidence grows with each return race on the biggest stage of their individual careers.
While names like Harvick, Johnson and Kenseth have long been in the “best of NASCAR” conversation, 2020 is proving we could soon see names like Reddick, Nemechek and Bell in the same sentence.