Tyler Reddick’s response is immediate. Asked to describe what the opening lap in Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway might be like, the Cup rookie says: “Frustrating.”
It’s not because it will be the first lap of competition in a Cup car at Darlington for Reddick — and six other drivers in the 40-car field.
Or that competitors will have had no practice or qualifying before racing at arguably NASCAR’s toughest track.
Or that it will have been 71 days since Reddick and his fellow drivers last competed in a Cup race because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Reddick users the word “frustrating” because of where he’ll start. A combination of owner points and random draw set the field. Reddick’s season has had more struggles than success and he enters the race 26th in points. That meant he was eligible to start in positions 25-36 through the random draw. He will start 29th.
“I’m going to be around a lot of cars that I’ve got to be smart around and get around on a tight racetrack like Darlington,” Reddick told NBC Sports.
But it’s not just the first lap that concerns him.
“Quite honestly,” Reddick said, “I’m terrified that somebody is going to wreck big and take half the field out in like the first 15 laps. We’re just going all in, right at the drop of the green. That’s just the situation we’re in.”
Every driver will be challenged. But those with experience should adapt quickly— even Matt Kenseth. Although he last competed in a Cup race in the 2018 season finale and has never driven the high downforce and low horsepower package that will be used Sunday, no active Cup driver has run more race laps at Darlington than Kenseth at 8,455. His Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, is next with 7,970 race laps at that track.
Cup rookie John Hunter Nemechek, though, will make his first Cup start at Darlington this weekend. He’s run at the track once, finishing 21st in last year’s Xfinity race. He will start 34th Sunday.
One thought is foremost to him about the start.
“You have to go into it with the mentality of don’t make a mistake the first lap and learn every lap,” Nemechek told NBC Sports. “Every lap that you’re on the racetrack, you’re learning, so continue to progress through the race, continue to get faster through the race. Just take your time getting up to speed, but at the same time you can’t take too much time or you end up going laps down.
“It’s hard. It’s one of the things where you’re trying to soak up as much information as possible and trying to apply it in a very short amount of time with no track time.”
Along with Reddick and Nemechek, others who have not run a lap at Darlington in a Cup car are Cole Custer (starting 14th), Quin Houff (27th), Christopher Bell (28th), Brennan Poole (35th) and Josh Bilicki (40th).
Custer returns to Darlington a winner. He finished second in last year’s Xfinity race but was declared the victor when Denny Hamlin’s winning car failed inspection after the race.
It’s a nice accomplishment but one that won’t mean much when Custer goes into Turn 1 side-by-side with another car for his first Cup lap at the track.
“It’s going be exciting,” Custer told NBC Sports.
For him or fans watching on TV?
“Probably for both,” Custer said with a chuckle. “It’s probably the hardest track to run around with other cars out there. Once the tires wear out, it’s one of the hardest tracks to run on. You try to put as much as you can into trying to watch (race) videos and (be) in the simulator and just try to get yourself prepared for what to expect, but you really don’t know what to expect before you make those first few laps.”
Making the start more challenging is that even though all 40 drivers will want to be conservative at the start, once the green flag waves, that thinking could go away quickly.
“That’s the problem,” Custer said. “I think everybody would want to start the race off conservative and just kind of make sure we make it through the first few laps and then get going and get a feel for it, but the problem is that, especially with this package, you can’t put yourself behind on a restart or anything like that.
“You might not be making those really daring moves and everything, but I think you’re going to have some people that are going to be aggressive, trying to make passes early on and trying to pick some spots off because that’s probably your best opportunity to make them.”
Bell’s plan is to avoid the temptation of making bold moves in the opening laps.
“Lap 1 is definitely going to be calm, steady and no mistakes,” Bell told NBC Sports. “That’s going to be the motto of my race the entire time.
“I’ve got to make sure I get to the last lap.”
First, he and the rest of the field must get through the first lap.