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Coca-Cola 600 Preview: Memorial Day Marathon

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This week we stay in central North Carolina for our NASCAR fix. In the wake of the recently completed All-Star Challenge, we return to Charlotte, North Carolina this weekend for the annual running of the Coca-Cola 600. This has been the traditional Memorial Day weekend race for several years. This 600-mile marathon is the perfect way to celebrate the long, holiday weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway sets the stage for this high speed, big stakes battle of survival. CMS is one of the Sprint Cup circuit's many 1.5-mile "D-shaped" ovals. It's very similar to both Atlanta and Texas in many respects, but the oval at Charlotte seems to produce more side-by-side racing than the other intermediate tracks. Horsepower is the name of the game at this speedway, and the durability of the equipment is pushed to the max. The 400 laps run at during the Coca-Cola 600, under the lights, and late into the night take their toll on both the cars and the drivers.

This past weekend's All-Star Challenge has given us our first look at the facility in Charlotte this season. What happened in that exhibition event will be a good preview of what we should see this Sunday evening. The 100-lap All-Star event gave us a sneak peek at the dominant teams that could dominate the night once again at this intermediate oval. One thing is for sure, the 600-mile distance provides the teams with several pit stops and chances to improve the handling of their race cars. It will be the team that keeps up with the constantly changing surface and cool evening air that will be doing a victory burnout at the end of the night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For the most part, we believe that this past weekend's All-Star Race could be the best indicator of what might happen in this weekend's Coca-Cola 600.

In combination with what we saw on All-Star weekend, we need to take a brief look at the historical loop stats for the oval at Charlotte. The extended length of this event does play a major factor in the performance of the drivers. So we can't solely rely on what we saw at CMS last weekend. For this race, the loop data from Charlotte Motor Speedway will play a significant role in our prognostications. The 1.5-mile track in Charlotte has been a track of streaks the last few years, and that could make it an easily-predictable race this weekend. The loop stats in the table below cover the last six years or 12 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson10.85864125493,606114.7
Kyle Busch13.95983435723,339108.2
Joey Logano8.52743431,121102.8
Kasey Kahne12.14853224712,53795.7
Mark Martin14.245173353,14592.6
Matt Kenseth17.04581331392,52289.4
Jeff Gordon19.13801602622,34788.9
Brian Vickers21.62781933321,60688.0
Jeff Burton13.748392722,57587.3
Greg Biffle17.1409129442,49486.6
Kurt Busch22.33731634402,25384.6
Denny Hamlin17.240697862,40784.3
Carl Edwards13.140067362,09084.3
Tony Stewart17.83991451822,24483.0
Jamie McMurray18.53441261211,82980.4
David Reutimann15.42846291,54679.8
Clint Bowyer17.633147861,71979.1
Ryan Newman20.1288521301,88877.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.23.93161181241,66575.7
Martin Truex Jr.19.13243491,77873.6


Chevrolet and Dodge teams have been flat-out dominant at Charlotte Motor Speedway in recent years. However, their stranglehold on this facility could be put in jeopardy this weekend. David Reutimann won this rain-shortened event in 2009 and took Toyota to victory lane for the first time ever at CMS. Kyle Busch is heating up right now and is a threat to win each and every week, so Toyota could continue to put a dent in the Chevy and Dodge record at the North Carolina oval. One driver who has been hot the whole month of May has been Kasey Kahne and his No 4 Red Bull Racing team. He has three career Charlotte victories, all for Dodge. Kahne could return to victory lane this weekend at CMS, but for Toyota this time. One year ago this weekend, Penske Racing star Kurt Busch completed the sweep of All-Star weekend and Coca-Cola 600 weekend with his big victory in last season's Memorial Day weekend marathon. He limps into this event, but based on his past intermediate oval prowess, we have to give him due recognition in this race. We'll highlight all the drivers that can guide your fantasy racing teams to success this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne has been hot in May, so we have to give him a fantasy racing nod of approval this weekend if for nothing other than his recent body of work. The Red Bull Racing star from Enumclaw, Wash., led a bunch of laps and forged Top 5's at both Darlington and Richmond prior to the All-Star break. Kahne is a three-time Charlotte winner, with his last victory coming in this event in 2008. In total, six of his 11 career Sprint Cup Series victories have come on intermediate ovals.

Carl Edwards –
Edwards and the No. 99 team have been heating up lately. He enters this race with the championship standings lead and coming off the dominant All-Star Challenge win this past weekend. It's no secret that intermediate ovals are his best venues on the circuit. While his recent results at Charlotte Motor Speedway have been sub par, we should see him mount an effort similar to his All-Star race showing on Sunday night.

Jimmie Johnson –
The Hendrick Motorsports star has amassed some impressive numbers over the years at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson leads all active drivers with six career wins at CMS, including the fall race of 2009. While the defending Sprint Cup Series champion has lost his death-grip on this intermediate oval, he's still very dangerous every time he climbs in a race car at this oval. Johnson has led a whopping 1,385 career laps at Charlotte, and that statistic needs absolutely no commentary.

Kyle Busch –
Aside from his obvious racing talent, we have to take a long look at Busch's racing resume at CMS this weekend. He has never won at the 1.5-mile track, but he's been painfully close on a few occasions. Busch carries a seven-race Top-10 streak at the oval into this event, and he's led over 500 laps during this span. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota was dominant in his two starts at Charlotte last season, racking up second- and third-place finishes and leading close to 250 laps in those two events combined.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Kurt Busch –
If recent history is any indication, the driver No. 22 Dodge usually runs up front and leads laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 2010 Busch finally cashed in at the North Carolina oval. After 19 prior starts he led 252 laps and won this event on the heels of his big All-Star Challenge victory the week before. Hopefully the Penske Racing star can find that groove again on Sunday night and prove to be an outside challenger to victory lane.

Denny Hamlin –
Historically speaking, Hamlin would appear to be a terrible play this Sunday night at CMS. He has a mere one Top 10 in his last seven visits to the intermediate oval in North Carolina. However, that Top 10 was his last appearance at Charlotte. Hamlin collected a brilliant fourth-place finish here last fall and ended a major skid at this race track. With things looking up right now in the No. 11 camp, there's no reason to believe that Hamlin can't duplicate that effort this weekend.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth has been strong during stretches this season. His powerful car that led 169 laps and won at the Fort Worth oval a few weeks ago is what grabs our attention the most entering this weekend's Coca-Cola 600. Kenseth is riding a four-race Top 10 streak at CMS into this Sunday night's race, and he's a one-time winner at the North Carolina oval. Things are going well in the No. 17 Ford camp right now, so a win in this 600-mile classic would come as no surprise.

Greg Biffle –
The Roush Fenway Racing team put all four drivers in the Top 8 of last weekend's All-Star Challenge, so we expect big things from this camp in the Coca-Cola 600. Biffle led a majority of the first 50-lap segment and cruised into the win for that segment of the All-Star race. We should see a strong No. 16 Ford again this Sunday evening. Biffle finished fifth in his last appearance at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the fall of 2010, and we could easily see a repeat of that performance in this 600-mile marathon.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Charlotte who can provide a solid finish

Jeff Gordon –
The five-time Charlotte winner will saddle up and try to snap his three-year winless streak at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His last victory at CMS came in the fall of 2007. That's not to say the No. 24 team have been poor at this facility. Gordon has led laps in five of his last seven Charlotte outings and brought home five Top-10 finishes during that span. We don't expect to see Gordon hoisting the trophy this Sunday night, but he should turn in another workman-like Top 10 in the Coca-Cola 600.

David Reutimann –
One-time Charlotte winner Reutimann loves racing at this intermediate oval. He won this race in 2009 and posted a pair of Top 10's here last season. Reutimann has displayed consistent results and strong cars every time he visits Charlotte Motor Speedway. Look no further than the No. 00 team's brilliant third-place finish in this past weekend's All-Star Challenge for proof of their prowess at CMS.

Paul Menard –
The intermediate ovals have been kind to Menard and his Richard Childress Racing team in 2011. His 12th-place finish at Las Vegas and fifth-place finish at Fort Worth speak for themselves. Menard should carry the momentum of those performances into Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte this Sunday. The talented young driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet finished a career-best eighth in this event one year ago, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him pull that feat again.

David Ragan –
Among the dark horse contenders this weekend is Ragan and the No. 6 Ford team. While winless on the season, he did impress us with his All-Star performance last weekend. Ragan showed a strong car in passing Brad Keselowski for the win in the Sprint Showdown on the white-flag lap. He then followed that up by starting 19th in the All-Star Challenge and navigated the field for 100 laps to an impressive eighth-place finish. Ragan posted a 10th-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway last fall, so the Roush Fenway Racing advantage should be apparent this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose –
When the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports team visits Charlotte Motor Speedway, we will be sure to tuck Ambrose's name in the back of our mind. He has enjoyed some moderate success at 1.5-mile ovals during his brief Sprint Cup career. Ambrose cracked the Top 20 for the first time at CMS last fall. His All-Star Showdown outing this past weekend was nothing short of impressive. Ambrose battled with the leaders in that 40-lap heat race only to finish third, one spot short of making the All-Star Challenge.

Bobby Labonte –
The deep sleeper of the group this week is JTG Daugherty Racing and veteran driver Labonte. The driver of the No. 47 Toyota enjoyed a pair of Top 10's in his Las Vegas and Fort Worth intermediate oval outings earlier this season, and the status quo should be in effect at Charlotte. Labonte has a mind-boggling 36 career starts at this oval with two victories and 17 Top 10's to his credit. While he won't likely challenge for the win this Sunday evening, Labonte should be good enough to post another hard-fought Top 25 in the Coca-Cola 600.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger should have a good car if last weekend's Sprint Showdown is any indication. The driver of the No. 43 RPM Ford qualified on the outside of the front row in that exhibition event and finished a respectable fourth in that 27-driver field. Allmendinger picked up a pair of Top 20's in his two intermediate oval starts earlier this season, and we think he'll finish even better in the Sunday's 600-mile event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Juan Pablo Montoya –
Bad luck, mistakes and poor performances have dogged the usually competitive Montoya this season. He owns only one Top-10 finish in eight career starts at the North Carolina speedway compared to three DNF's. Despite the fast cars that the No. 42 team has been giving him this season, Montoya has been finding ways to underachieve. These are factors that simply make him a risky fantasy racing play at Charlotte.

Mark Martin –
Martin has been under-performing most of the season at Hendrick Motorsports. He enters this event a less-than-impressive 11th in the driver standings. The four-time Charlotte winner has been reduced from a championship contender to just another face in the Top 15 most weeks. His All-Star outing this past weekend could likely foreshadow what to expect on Sunday night at CMS. He crashed and finished a disappointing 19th in the All-Star Challenge, so chances are good that he'll be well outside the Top 10 again this weekend.

Jamie McMurray –
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teams have really fallen short of their 2010 performance this season. McMurray won three races last season, and he's been in anything but race-winning form to this point in 2011. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet underwhelmed with his 19th-place, last car on the lead lap, finish in the All-Star Challenge this past weekend. The trends are so poor that we can't even really consider his historical stats at Charlotte for this event.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt fell way short of expectations last weekend in All-Star festivities. If he hadn't won the fan vote to transfer into the All-Star Challenge field, he would have missed the event for the first time in his NASCAR career due to his sixth-place showing in the Sprint Showdown. Earnhardt went on to post an unimpressive 14th-place finish in the All-Star Challenge later that night. The No. 88 team has failed to crack the Top 20 in their last five appearances at CMS, so they're going to have to find a lot of speed if they hope to contend in the Coca-Cola 600.