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Coca-Cola 600 Preview: 600-Mile 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 weekend we stay in Concord, N.C., for our NASCAR action. In the wake of the recently completed Sprint All-Star Challenge, we return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600. This has been the traditional event for the holiday weekend for several years now. This 600-mile marathon is the perfect way to celebrate the long Memorial Day 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 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. In summary, this race is about equipment preservation, driver preservation and fuel preservation. The long green flag runs we typically see in the 600 can often set up a fuel-mileage run to the finish, so crew chiefs have a lot to keep their eyes on in this very long race.

This past weekend's All-Star Challenge has given us our first look at the facility in Charlotte this season. What transpired in that exhibition event will be a good preview of what we should see this Sunday evening. The 90-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. Barring any engine failures, we expect the Roush Fenway Racing teams to show up better this weekend. There must have been a pretty significant "push the envelope" package in Roush engines this past weekend for the All-Star race. Don't count on the No. 16 and No. 99 Fords of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards going up in smoke again this Sunday night.

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 seven years or 14 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.67144515504,201111.0
Kyle Busch14.46963857383,836106.6
Matt Kenseth15.65932682883,22595.2
Kasey Kahne12.26023644993,00394.8
Joey Logano8.23453431,23193.5
Greg Biffle16.65352241622,98589.2
Carl Edwards12.6508105982,77888.4
Denny Hamlin16.05101191103,04987.5
Mark Martin17.250273353,20587.4
Jeff Gordon19.34811662812,63886.9
Jeff Burton14.553995782,84685.4
Tony Stewart17.14951812812,71485.0
Kurt Busch20.44731734432,67685.0
Trevor Bayne31.04823022983.2
David Ragan19.041042121,97279.3
David Reutimann15.83376891,74378.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.22.44251441262,06577.7
Jamie McMurray20.44081281261,94877.3
Clint Bowyer17.938347861,91876.8
Ryan Newman20.1364561362,27476.4

Chevrolet teams have gotten the best of the competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway in recent years. Chevy drivers have won three of the last five races at CMS, not counting Jimmie Johnson's All-Star victory this past weekend. However, their stranglehold on this facility could be put in jeopardy this weekend. Ford driver Matt Kenseth won the last race at the North Carolina oval with his victory in last October's Bank of America 500. He out-dueled Kyle Busch to claim his second career win at Charlotte. Given the strength of Roush Fords this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, this will easily be Chevy's biggest contender for the throne at CMS this weekend. Speaking of Busch, the Joe Gibbs Racing ace is heating up right now and is a threat to win each and every week, so Toyota could stage a coupe at the North Carolina oval. One thing we need to keep in mind this weekend is the All-Star / Coca-Cola 600 sweep. It has happened in the past and is not completely unheard of in the recent history of NASCAR. Two years ago this weekend, former Penske Racing star Kurt Busch completed the sweep of All-Star weekend and Coca-Cola 600 weekend with his big victory in 2010's Memorial Day weekend marathon. Could Johnson be poised to repeat that scenario this weekend? Given how he ran away from the field in the final segment of the All-Star Challenge, we would rate those odds a pretty favorable. 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

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. He has led a whopping 1,386 career laps at the Charlotte oval, and that statistic needs absolutely no commentary. Considering that he's fresh off the All-Star Challenge victory this past weekend at this intermediate oval and a win at Darlington Raceway the week before, the competition should be shaking in their collective boots this Memorial Day weekend.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has some rather impressive loop stats at Charlotte Motor Speedway to never have tasted the thrill of victory at this facility. That's right, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has never won at this 1.5-mile track, but he's been painfully close on more than one occasion. In just his last four visits to the North Carolina speedway alone, Busch has amassed over 400 laps led and he's collected finishes of third-, second-, 32nd- and second-place. Outside of the DNF due to engine failure in this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota has been just a tick off visiting victory lane at this facility. This Sunday evening may be when luck begins to even out.

Denny Hamlin -
Historically speaking, Hamlin would not appear to be a big threat to win at Charlotte this weekend. He's never won in 13 career starts at this 1.5-mile oval and he's only led more than 50 laps once in those starts. Looking too closely at those numbers are deceptive on the surface. The No. 11 Toyota team's loop stats at CMS are pretty strong, with Hamlin checking in at a respectable 87.5 driver rating. Also consider that the Joe Gibbs Racing star is riding a three-race Top 10 streak at the Charlotte oval into this event. Hamlin has two wins already in 2012, with his most recent coming at the similar oval in Kansas.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with his last win at this facility coming in last October's Bank of America 500. The Roush Fenway Racing star has finishes of fourth- and fifth-place in the last two intermediate oval races this season, so that's proof positive that he's in top form at theses style tracks. Kenseth slammed the No. 17 Ford to the front of the pack in this past weekend's All-Star Challenge to win the second segment. He went on to finish the night third overall with easily the fastest Ford on the track in that exhibition event. Kenseth will be in the mix for the win again this weekend.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
If recent history were our only guide, you wouldn't be seeing Truex's name in the solid plays list this week. Historical stats have shown that the Michael Waltrip Racing star has a lowly two Top 10's in 13 career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. What changed our minds? This is not your usual driver or team that has typically raced at Charlotte. Truex has been one of the hottest drivers in the series, especially on the intermediate ovals this season. He won the pole, led 69 laps and finished sixth at Fort Worth a few weeks ago. Truex followed that effort up with a dominant Kansas performance of 173 laps led and a runner-up finish. The cookie cutter ovals have been very kind to the MWR driver this season.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has been heating up the whole month of 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 Hendrick Motorsports star led a bunch of laps and forged Top 10's at both Talladega and Darlington prior to the All-Star break. So the No. 5 Chevrolet team is riding a huge wave of momentum into Charlotte this weekend. Kahne is a three-time Charlotte Motor Speedway winner, with over 700 career laps led at this facility. In total, six of his 12 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 a perfect five-for-five in Top 10's in the last five straight 1.5-mile oval events. Given this fact, Its no surprise that intermediate ovals are his best venues on the circuit. His 57 percent Top 10 rate at Charlotte is probably the lowest of his intermediate oval resume, but that's still a pretty impressive rate for cracking the Top 10. Edwards' last visit to the North Carolina oval yielded a third-place qualifying effort and third-place finish. The Roush Fenway Racing star should turn in another solid performance on Sunday night.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing team put two drivers in the Top 3 and all four drivers in the Top 15 of last October's Bank of America 500, so we expect big things from this camp in the Coca-Cola 600. Biffle led 68 laps of that race and battle with the leaders for most of the race before fates dealt him a 15th-place finish. We should see a strong No. 16 Ford again this Sunday evening. Biffle won in a surprising performance at the Texas oval earlier this season, and we could easily see a repeat of that effort in this 600-mile marathon.

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

Tony Stewart -
The one-time Charlotte winner will saddle up and try to better his October 2011 performance at this intermediate oval. The Sprint Cup Series champion won the pole, led 94 laps and finished eighth the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte Motor Speedway. Considering that the No. 14 Chevrolet team won earlier in the season at Las Vegas, we have to take Smoke quite seriously this weekend. The owner/driver can show up any given weekend at these intermediate ovals with a race-winning car, so we have to consider Stewart's tremendous upside when placing our fantasy racing lineups.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon comes to Charlotte this weekend still looking for that mysterious and elusive victory lane. While he may not find it at CMS, Earnhardt should still be good for a great run at the intermediate oval. Earnhardt finished seventh in this race one year ago and that was his 10th career Top 10 at Charlotte. Entering this weekend, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is a perfect three-for-three in Top 10's on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. The most consistent driver in the series should labor to yet another Top 10 in this Sunday evening's Coca-Cola 600.

Clint Bowyer -
This intermediate oval has been a real puzzle for Bowyer over the years. He only has three Top-10 finishes in 12 starts at the North Carolina speedway. Those trends are under threat of change this weekend. With the new No. 56 Toyota of Michael Waltrip Racing, Bowyer has been redefining his historical trends at certain race tracks. His sixth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season is a prime example. Bowyer had a fast Toyota Camry on his hands at Kansas Speedway as well before an engine failure robbed him of the Top 10. We expect Bowyer to be sneaky good this Memorial Day weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger should have a good car if last weekend's Sprint Showdown is any indication. The driver of the No. 22 Penske Dodge qualified on the pole in that exhibition event and finished a brilliant runner-up in that 22-driver field. Once Allmendinger moved into the All-Star Challenge he turned lap times as fast or faster than the leaders at certain points. Allmendinger won the pole in his last intermediate oval race at Kansas Speedway, and led 44 laps before events conspired to saddle him with a 32nd-place finish. We expect to see a fast No. 22 Dodge in Sunday night's 600-mile race.

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 has cracked the Top 10 in each of his last two visits to CMS, including this event one year ago where he led 18 laps and finished sixth. Ambrose's All-Star Challenge debut this past weekend was nothing short of impressive. The Aussie battled with the leaders in that 90-lap exhibition race to finish seventh under the lights at CMS.

Jamie McMurray -
The deep sleeper of the group this week is Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and veteran driver McMurray. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet earned his first career Sprint Cup Series victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in 2002. That wasn't enough, as he returned here in the fall of 2010 and went to victory lane at CMS for the second time in his career. To say that the Charlotte oval is special to the EGR driver would be an understatement. Given that McMurray started from the rear of the field to finish third in this past Saturday night's Sprint Showdown, we have high confidence in the No. 1 team this Sunday night.

Trevor Bayne -
Among the dark horse contenders this weekend is Bayne and the No. 21 Ford team. While Bayne is just a part-time driver this season, he's worth some serious fantasy racing consideration when we visit these 1.5-mile speedways. The Wood Brothers Racing youngster has only one career Cup start at Charlotte Motor Speedway and that was a disappointing 31st-place finish here last October. We have good reason to believe that this time around things will be different. Namely Bayne's ninth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this season. The 21-year-old is still learning a lot in these Sprint Cup cars and he's ready to show what he's learned in the Coca-Cola 600.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kurt Busch -
Bad luck, mistakes and poor performances have dogged the usually competitive Busch this season. The embattled Phoenix Racing driver may be reaping some of the bad karma he's sewn the last few years and it's been a humbling experience to this point in 2012. Busch has finishes of 35th-, 13th- and 17th-place on the intermediate ovals this season and that falls well short of what we expect from this former champion. His lowly 26 percent Top 10 rate at this oval likely tells us all we need to know about the No. 51 team's chances this weekend.

Mark Martin -
Martin has gone from red hot to stone cold the last couple events with Michael Waltrip Racing. The No. 55 Toyota team that started the season so well has fallen on hard times in May. Martin has finished outside the Top 15 in two of his last three races with one DNF. Despite Martin's laundry list of accomplishments at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we have to turn down our expectations for this weekend. His last six trips to the North Carolina oval have only yielded one Top-10 finish and two finishes outside the Top 30. Martin's misfortune in last Saturday night's All-Star Challenge is a likely foreshadow of what's to come.

Dave Blaney -
The Tommy Baldwin Racing veteran has had a tough season to this point in the year. Blaney has had little to be cheerful about outside of his Top-15 finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. 10 starts and four DNF's later Blaney finds himself struggling just to stay in the Top 35 of the driver standings. Charlotte's tricky oval should prove a difficult puzzle to solve for the driver of the No. 36 Chevrolet. Blaney owns only two career Top 10's in 23 starts at the 1.5-mile oval and a lowly 26.0 career average finish at the facility.

Jeff Gordon -
The five-time Charlotte winner will saddle up and try to snap his recent string of bad luck in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600. For Gordon's sake we hope he's found the cure for his improbable streak of terrible luck during the All-Star break. However, recent trends at this track for the No. 24 Chevrolet team would seem to indicate that Gordon won't rediscover his mo-jo this weekend. Gordon's last three trips to Charlotte have yielded results outside the Top 15. The Hendrick Motorsports star was practically invisible in this past weekend's All-Star Challenge. He didn't lead a single lap of the 90-lap affair and finished a sub-par 13th in the prestigious exhibition race. We expect more of the same for the Coca-Cola 600.
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