NASCAR gets it right in return to racing

With three Cup Series racing events in the books and another set for Wednesday, the Cup Series has seized on its opportunity to draw in fans

Brad Keselowski won Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the third race in the NASCAR Cup Series’ return to competition. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Has NASCAR’s return to the track been perfect?

Far from it. Weather has been an ongoing issue, with one Cup Series race cut short by rain, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 becoming an even longer event with a stoppage, and the Xfinity Series battling delays of its own.

But through three races with another at Charlotte Motor Speedway scheduled for Wednesday, has NASCAR’s comeback been a success?

Without a doubt.

With a captive audience starved for televised sports, NASCAR boasted big ratings for its return and delivered a couple of end-of-race twists that provided some drama — even if Chase Elliott wouldn’t approve of those scripts.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far in NASCAR’s return and what to expect going forward.

As predicted, Harvick the top dog

I said last week Kevin Harvick would probably find a way to get his first win of the season during the four-race stretch at Darlington and Charlotte, and he took care of it in the first one. Harvick has been close to perfect through seven races this season, winning the first Darlington race and notching top-fives in the next two events.

The Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 has finished ninth or better in every race this season and led a series-best 328 laps — 10 more than Alex Bowman — to emerge as the team to beat this season.

Hard-luck Chase

Elliott has been nearly as good as Harvick since the Cup Series resumed a week ago and had a ton of luck. The trouble is, it’s been mostly bad.

After a fourth-place finish in the return race at Darlington, the No. 9 looked like it was headed to Victory Lane last Wednesday. Instead, a miscalculation by Kyle Busch sent Elliott into the wall and a 38th-place finish. Busch received a one-finger salute from Elliott and then got some weather assistance when the sky opened up and he was able to finish second.

Elliott was also poised to win in Sunday’s Coca‑Cola 600, but a cut tire for teammate William Byron brought out a caution and forced overtime. Elliott opted for a pit stop, but he didn’t have enough time to catch Brad Keselowski, who got the win.

Johnson, Hamlin run afoul

Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was so close to snapping his three-year win drought, crossing the finish line less than three-tenths of a second behind Keselowski at the Coca-Cola 600.

But what could have been a moral victory for Johnson in his effort to return to the Cup Series playoffs and try to win a record eighth title became even more disappointment when the No. 48 failed its postrace inspection. Johnson’s second-place finish became a last-place 40th in what crew chief Cliff Daniels called “tough news after a strong night.”

Denny Hamlin, one of two drivers to win twice so far this season, was quickly eliminated from winning a third at Charlotte when a 35-pound tungsten weight fell off the car during the race’s warmup laps and kept the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 on pit road for eight circuits.

The cost afterward was even more severe as NASCAR suspended Hamlin’s crew chief, car chief and engineer four races for the incident as mandated by the series’ rules.

Back on the road for a busy June

The Cup Series will race again at Charlotte on Wednesday and then finally leave the Carolinas for Bristol on Sunday.

Six races are scheduled in June, starting with Atlanta on June 7 and Martinsville three days later. The series next races June 14 at Homestead before getting a full week to prepare for Talladega on June 21. The month closes with the most ambitious endeavor yet: a doubleheader weekend at Pocono on June 27-28.