Here’s which NASCAR drivers could thrive in four-race, 11-day return to Cup racing

NASCAR won’t just resume its NASCAR Cup Series season May 17 at Darlington Raceway.

It will resume with a race where the drivers don’t have any laps at speed on the track prior to the event. They won’t have practice and won’t have qualifying. And with no support race prior to that event, that means no tire rubber on the track.

Talk about your changing track conditions.

As Cup drivers navigate the first four races at Darlington (May 17 and May 20) and Charlotte (May 24 and May 27), they won’t practice at any of those and will only qualify for the 600-mile race May 24 at Charlotte.

So which drivers should perform the best under these parameters? The worst?

The standard answer is that those who normally run well or ran well in the first four events this year will continue to race up front. And those who struggled will continue to run in the back. Small teams especially could find themselves falling behind as the bigger teams could learn enough to implement changes in their cars more quickly.

But it likely will put a priority in three areas: A team’s use of simulation to hit the right setup without practice, the driver and crew chief communication during the race to make the right adjustments, and a driver’s ability to handle the changing conditions of the race track.

Here are five drivers that should thrive (in alphabetical order):

Kurt Busch: Busch is one of the most talented drivers out there and is in tune with his race car. He is in his second year of working with crew chief Matt McCall, a former driver himself who isn’t afraid to take some big swings. There could be some whiffs, but the potential is there for the 2004 champion to shine.

Kyle Busch: If there is a driver who can carry a car on his talent, Kyle Busch might be the best of anyone in the series. But here’s the thing: He typically doesn’t need to do that because Adam Stevens is solid and has won two championships with Busch. They are in their sixth season together, and even if Busch gets frustrated, Stevens knows how to help Busch to channel his talents and frustrations throughout a race.

Kevin Harvick: Harvick and Rodney Childers have the longest active driver-crew chief relationship in the garage (seven years). They have had plenty of weekends in their careers where they were the best car start to finish.

Martin Truex Jr.: James Small is in his first year as crew chief, but the No. 19 team has been among the best in recent years in being fast off the truck and using its simulation tools for maximum impact.

Joey Logano: Logano and Paul Wolfe have two wins this year, but maybe the biggest thing is because of those two wins, they can take some risks and chances with setups and risk some stage points early in the race.

You might notice something about that list: It doesn’t have a Hendrick Motorsports driver on it. There are reasons they all could thrive — there are three experienced crew chiefs in Chad Knaus (William Byron), Greg Ives (Alex Bowman) and Alan Gustafson (Chase Elliott). And there was no driver better in his prime at adapting to different conditions than Jimmie Johnson.

They all could see great success under this format, especially with the new Camaro body that seems to be an improvement over what they had a year ago. But do they really know all the adjustments that will work and don’t work? Will that car be conducive to a rapidly changing track? And did they get any false sense of security early in the season with races run in cooler temperatures than what they will see this summer? By the end of May, everyone in the garage will have the answer.

Denny Hamlin isn’t on that above list but consider him the first driver left off. He and crew chief Chris Gabehart were so good last year, that maybe the jury is still a little out as far as how they will adapt with the adjustments needed to changing conditions.

The newest driver on the circuit could be among those who struggle.

Kyle Larson’s replacement Matt Kenseth has not even driven a car with the aerodynamic package they will use at Darlington and Charlotte. And he has never worked with crew chief Chad Johnston. This won’t be easy.

The rookies have an uphill road. Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek have shown promise at various times, but their learning curve will be steep. Don’t be surprised to see them much improved at the second race at Darlington and the second race at Charlotte from the first one at each of those tracks.

Drivers who have new crew chiefs this year and will be tested by this format could include Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Bubba Wallace.

Stat Of Note

The last time NASCAR ran four Cup races in 11 days came in 1971: July 14 at Albany-Saratoga (N.Y.) Speedway, July 15 at Islip (N.Y.) Speedway, July 18 at Trenton (N.J.) Speedway and July 24 at Nashville (Tenn.) Fairgrounds. Richard Petty won at Albany-Saratoga … and Islip .. and Trenton … and Nashville.

Social Spotlight

What They Said

I think we have a good team but some people don’t think so. I know what our team is capable of. We finished seventh last year – we were the highest-placing Chevrolet in the points last year. So I think we’re OK. Other people might have a raised eyebrow. I think we’ve showed we can win.” — Chip Ganassi