Start your engines: NASCAR returns this weekend

The Cup Series will race Sunday and next Wednesday at Darlington and then compete twice at Charlotte the following week

NASCAR will make its return Sunday at Darlington Raceway, pictured in 2016, in front of empty stands, the first of three races — two in the Cup Series — in four days. (Terry Renna / AP Photo)

The NASCAR Cup Series is ready to return, though it will feature no fans in the stands and a Southeast-heavy schedule that will begin Sunday and see four races in 11 days with Sunday-Wednesday doubleheaders at both South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR’s top series last raced March 8 at Phoenix, a win by Joey Logano and Team Penske, before the season was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. For Logano, it was his second win in the Cup Series’ first four races before the stoppage, and he has even more to race for after his wife, Brittany, gave birth to their second child, Jameson Jett, last Thursday.

It will start with a Cup Series race at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Darlington followed by an Xfinity Series race Tuesday and a second Cup race Wednesday. The teams will then head back north for a similar schedule in Concord: the Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 will be Sunday, May 24, followed by Xfinity and Gander Truck Series races Monday and Tuesday, respectively. The Cup Series will then race again the following Wednesday (May 27) at CMS.

The one-day events — held at these two tracks because they are within driving distance of NASCAR’s hub in and around Mooresville — will not have qualifying (except for the Coca-Cola 600) or practice.

Here’s a refresher on what happened through the Cup Series’ first four races and what’s to come.

Harvick’s No. 4 team to beat

While the No. 4 did not earn a win in the season’s first four races, Kevin Harvick piloted his Stewart-Haas Racing car to top 10s in each stop on the Cup Series schedule so far. Logano (wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix), Denny Hamlin (Daytona 500) and Alex Bowman (Fontana) have already earned spots in the NASCAR Playoffs with wins.

Harvick is a good bet to earn his automatic bid in one of the next four races. He is one of eight active drivers to have won previously at Darlington and also has three career victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has the most active wins at both tracks with three at Darlington and a whopping eight at CMS, but his last Cup Series win was in June 2017 at Dover.

Chip Ganassi Racing lured Matt Kenseth out of retirement to replace fired driver Kyle Larson in the No. 42. (John Raoux / AP Photo)

Kenseth replaces Larson

Kyle Larson had arguably been the most consistent driver at Darlington in recent seasons, compiling a second and two thirds in the four races there since 2016. But Larson is out at Chip Ganassi Racing after he used a racial slur during an iRacing event, and 2003 Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth was picked to take over in the No. 42 Chevy.

Kenseth last raced a full schedule in 2017, finishing in the top 10 in the standings for the 13th time in his career.

“I know I have a lot of work ahead of me to get up to speed in a relatively short period of time, but I’m looking forward to the challenge,” the 48-year-old Kenseth said in late April following the announcement.

Newman ready to go

Also getting back in the driver’s seat is Ryan Newman, whose horrific crash in the season-opening Daytona 500 was not only a reminder of how violent stock car racing can be but also the incredible safety standards implemented by NASCAR teams.

Newman missed the three races following Daytona while recovering, and Ross Chastain drove the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 to three top-10s as his replacement.

Newman will most likely need to win a race — something he’s accomplished just once in the past six-plus seasons — to return to the Cup Series Playoffs, and he’s never reached Victory Lane at Darlington nor Charlotte. Still, his 12.6 average finish at Darlington — bolstered by seven top-fives in 21 career Cup Series races there — is his second-best (behind Richmond) among active tracks

iRacing bump for Byron?

If NASCAR’s iRacing results counted toward the Cup Series standings, everyone would be looking up at William Byron. The Charlotte native won three of the six events he entered and surely hopes the momentum from the virtual racing world carries over to real life in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24.

The 22-year-old is still looking for his first Cup win and had just one top 10 in the first four races of the season (10th at Phoenix).

“I’ve enjoyed this iRacing series, but I’m definitely ready to get going in my real car,” Byron told The Associated Press after the virtual race at Dover on May 3. “Racing anything, whether it’s a box car or anything with an engine, is going to give you confidence if you are winning.”