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Bank of America 500: Halfway to the Title

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.

We've reached the mid-point in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This weekend's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is race five of 10 in the playoff format that crowns the Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the second of five intermediate oval events in the Chase, and we should be able to examine the results at Chicago for a good indicator of what could happen Saturday night. Even more applicable could be the results from the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in early September. Since the oval at Atlanta has higher banking than Chicago, the performances there could even more closely mirror what could happen this weekend at Charlotte. This comparison doesn't stop there. The race at AMS a few weeks ago was also under the lights at night much like this weekend's race at Charlotte. Denny Hamlin marched into victory lane for the fourth time this season at Atlanta with a very impressive performance. He held off Jeff Gordon to win that Sunday evening in the 500-mile event at AMS. Considering that the No. 11 Toyota team is a player in the championship picture, we expect Hamlin to be a factor again at Charlotte this Saturday night. However, Brad Keselowski was lurking and charging hard in the closing stages of that race. Had there been just 10 more laps the outcome could have been completely different. Keselowski sits atop the Chase Standings as we visit Charlotte this weekend, so you know the Penske Racing star will be in the mix for the win.

Even though the intermediate oval at Charlotte is similar to both Atlanta Motor Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway in many respects, we still need to take a good look at the recent track history of Charlotte Motor Speedway. As you'll see in the table below, we do have a few drivers that struggled at Chicago, but are historically good plays at the track in Charlotte. Here are the loop stats for the last 15 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.57724885504,599111.0
Kyle Busch13.67624147934,234107.5
Kasey Kahne11.56514535953,40297.5
Matt Kenseth15.36552942883,48295.1
Greg Biffle15.85762823663,38592.3
Denny Hamlin15.05651421233,44689.3
Carl Edwards12.3563113982,97388.4
Joey Logano10.33453431,23188.3
Jeff Gordon18.55511762863,00187.7
Mark Martin18.355475353,53187.0
Jeff Burton14.8546103782,88884.4
Tony Stewart17.65081822812,73083.4
Kurt Busch20.84731794432,67682.9
Aric Almirola16.0721333282.1
David Reutimann15.83376891,74378.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.34871461262,40178.8
Clint Bowyer17.541350862,11277.4
Marcos Ambrose20.4191553886677.3
Jamie McMurray20.54671331262,08377.2
Brad Keselowski16.5191161091976.8

Rick Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing have each had quite a bit of success at CMS the last few seasons. These two Chevrolet and one Ford stable have accounted for four of the last six victories at the 1.5-mile oval in North Carolina. It was the Kasey Kahne show in the Coca-Cola 600 in May of this year. He took the lead from Jeff Gordon on the final green-flag run and cruised home to the victory, his first with Hendrick Motorsports. Although Kahne was the victor, it was a race dominated by four different drivers. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle all did their best to unseat Chevy's recent success at the North Carolina speedway. These four drivers led a combined 368 of the 400 laps. While that race didn't come down to fuel mileage and pit strategy, don't rule that out this Saturday night. Certainly fuel mileage and pit strategy have been a recent theme this season and an occasional outcome at Charlotte. Fuel mileage came into play at Dover a couple weeks ago, and while faster cars pitted late and lost the lead, it was Brad Keselowski who came away with that win thanks to a gas-sipping Dodge Charger. Who will win on Saturday in the Bank of America 500? Will Roush get Matt Kenseth or another driver back to victory lane? Or will rival Chevrolet drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson surprise and take a trip to winner's circle? Will Kahne successfully defend his victory here in the spring? Will championship contender Keselowski continue his red hot Chase performance? We'll run down the list of race contenders, Chase contenders and others who you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have figured something out about Charlotte in the last few years. The veteran driver won three races at CMS between 2006 and 2008 with Evernham Motorsports. He moved to Hendrick during the off-season and promptly won his fourth career Charlotte race in May's Coca-Cola 600. Over Kahne's 17 career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway he's led well over 800 laps, won four victories, and collected nine Top-10 finishes. The No. 5 Chevrolet team is still alive in the championship picture, so we expect the dynamic duo of Kahne and Francis to be on their "A" game this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time Charlotte winner has far more than just a win in this weekend's race in mind. Johnson is focused on yet another championship. It will take a couple wins in the 10-race Chase to make that happen. Although the vast majority of his success came earlier in his career at this intermediate oval, the No. 48 team has won as recently as 2009 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The five-time champion will definitely use that past experience and his current momentum this weekend. Johnson has led close to 1,400 laps at this speedway during his career, so it wouldn't be that surprising at all to see him win the Bank of America 500.

Brad Keselowski -
The fresh face in the Chase is having a great playoff run so far. Keselowski has posted two victories and four Top 10's in the four races to-date. That has him solidly atop the Chase standings as we enter Charlotte weekend. The Penske Racing phenom should continue that great production with a great effort in this Saturday's Bank of America 500. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte Motor Speedway it was Keselowski who was coming on strong in the closing laps to finish fifth, but we have even higher expectations for this driver and team this Saturday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin -
We have seen the driver of the No. 11 Toyota put on a clinic this season on the series' intermediate ovals. Hamlin's last five starts on the 1.5-mile ovals have yielded two victories, 209 laps led and four Top-5 finishes. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte, Hamlin led 13 laps and finished runner-up in the Coca-Cola 600. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has never won at this oval, but the Chase brings out the best in our top drivers. It wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Hamlin roll into victory lane for the first time at CMS this Saturday.

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

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been successfully building some momentum and team chemistry during this season's Chase. Since he's racing without pressure, it seems that the Joe Gibbs Racing star can just go out and have fun, and its working. Busch has cracked the Top 10 in the last five straight intermediate oval events, and he's been a good historical performer at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His impressive 59 percent Top 10 rate at this oval is only bolstered by his recent Charlotte performances. Busch's last five trips to the North Carolina oval have yielded four Top-3 finishes and well over 450 laps led. He has this place nailed stone cold.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth's big Talladega win keeps him barely alive in the championship picture. Unfortunately, he'll probably need to win again this weekend to be a legitimate championship contender in the five remaining races. He enters this event ranked 12th in the Chase Standings at 62 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. Kenseth comes to a good venue for him and the No. 17 team this Saturday night. Charlotte Motor Speedway has yielded two victories and 14 Top-10 finishes to Roush Fenway Racing star over the years. Kenseth led 46 laps and won this event one year ago, and he'll certainly be racing with the leaders yet again this Saturday at CMS.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Intermediate ovals have been great venues for the Michael Waltrip Racing No. 56 team this season. The best evidence of this is Truex's two Top 5s and four Top 10's in the last 1.5-mile oval events. He led 40 laps and was just a whisker away from victory lane a few weeks ago under the lights at Atlanta Motor Speedway before eventually finishing fourth. Truex may not be up to the task of cracking the Top 5 this weekend, but he should be pretty steady in the Bank of America 500. He finished 12th in May at this same oval, but we feel he will be greatly improved this time around.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports Racing veteran has his eye on the prize, and that is the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship. Earnhardt knows he needs a great performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway to keep that dream a possibility. The No. 88 team has never really enjoyed all that much success at the 1.5-mile oval, but Earnhardt has reversed that trend with his last three starts at this intermediate oval. Two of his last three trips to CMS have netted Top-10 finishes. Earnhardt is one of only two drivers in the series to post Top 10's at all the 1.5-mile tracks this season, so he should stay on a roll this weekend.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Only Mark Martin and Bill Elliott have more Top 10's among active drivers at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gordon is also a five-time winner at the North Carolina oval, and as recently as 2007. Intermediate ovals have been excellent venues for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team this season. Gordon has two Top 5s and three Top 10's in just the last four 1.5-mile oval starts. His last start at CMS in May yielded a solid seventh-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. We expect Gordon to finish somewhere along those lines in Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle returns to the scene of his awesome fourth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 this May. The veteran driver of the No. 16 Ford led a dominating 204 laps that night before falling back to finish fourth. Surprisingly, Biffle has never won in his 19 career visits to Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he's been improving with age and experience. He has led significant laps in each of his last three visits to this intermediate oval. With the urgency of the championship at hand, we believe this Roush Fenway Racing driver will be in top form for this 500-mile contest.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is trying to stay alive in the championship picture, and CMS promises to be a potential boost for the driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet. He has one career victory and seven Top-10 finishes at the 1.5-mile oval. His most recent outing at this oval in May yielded a solid eighth-place finish. That is one of three Top 10's in the last five intermediate oval events for Harvick. Considering that veteran driver led 101 laps and finished fifth recently at the similarly configured oval in Atlanta, you can easily see our reason for optimism this weekend. Harvick brings some tremendous upside to the table for this race, and the assurance he will crack the Top 15 at a minimum.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
With the Silly Season talk heating up around the garage area, it would seem that Hornish may be auditioning for a Sprint Cup job in 2013 right now. With Joey Logano taking over the No. 22 Dodge next season, Hornish could be looking for other opportunities rather than racing for Penske in just the Nationwide Series next season. Hornish won't lack for motivation to perform at Charlotte. He has no Top 10's in six career starts at CMS, but we see that trend changing this weekend. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge has finishes of 19th-, 11th- and 11th-place in the last three intermediate oval events.

Paul Menard -
Looking for a safe sleeper this weekend? Look no further than Menard in your weekly lineup games. The Richard Childress Racing driver has been rediscovering his mo-jo of late. Menard's last four 1.5-mile oval efforts have netted four Top-15 finishes, including a surprising eighth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway under the lights just a few weeks ago. These performances are what we've come to expect from the No. 27 team at these facilities. Menard's last two Charlotte efforts have been 17th- and 15th-place finishes, and we expect much more for Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The reigning Nationwide Series champion saddles up for his third Sprint Cup start of the season this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The late-season cramming for 2013's rookie campaign is well underway at the No. 6 Ford team. Stenhouse proved his talent recently with a solid 12th-place finish at the Monster Mile. The young driver may lack some experience, but he more than makes up for it with raw talent. Considering that Stenhouse will be piloting a good Roush Fenway Racing Ford this weekend at CMS, it's fair to put high expectations on this talented youngster.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Kurt Busch -
Busch makes the move to the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team this week for the race at Charlotte. This is an upgrade in teams, but there's good reason to believe that his demons will follow him to his new ride. Busch is in hot water with NASCAR over his ill-tempered drive-off after a Talladega wreck last week. His actions put track workers in danger. Potential fines and suspensions loom, so it's best to steer clear of any fantasy racing expectations at Charlotte this weekend.

Mark Martin -
While Martin has had a fantastic part-time season with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012, there have been some lowlights too. Of his eight Top-10 finishes this season, only two have come on the intermediate oval circuit. These 1.5-mile ovals have been particularly perplexing for the four-time Charlotte winner. Martin's last effort at CMS resulted in an engine failure and 34th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. That was his third straight finish outside the Top 30 at CMS. The potential is there for a good run for Martin, but the risk and stakes seem pretty high for the No. 55 team.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer's crash at Talladega this past week has put a major dent in his championship hopes. The MWR driver has slipped from fourth to fifth in the Chase Standings and he lost a good deal of ground to leader Brad Keselowski. Now that the pressure is on, Bowyer will have to perform on what has been challenging type ovals for the No. 15 Toyota team this season. The high-banked intermediate oval circuit (Texas, Atlanta and Charlotte) has yielded finishes of 17th-, 13th- and 27th-place for Bowyer this season. The reason for the dip in performance on these tracks is not obvious, but the fantasy racing player should pay attention to these numbers.

Ryan Newman -
Much like his Stewart Haas Racing teammate, Newman is likely a candidate to pass over this weekend when it comes to lineup selection. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet eeked out a Top 10 in the Talladega wreck this past weekend. That finish extended what has been a pretty good five-race run for the veteran driver. However, Newman has had his struggles on the intermediate ovals this season. He has only one Top-10 finish in the last five 1.5-mile oval events. That averages out to a lackluster 21.6 average finish at this style ovals in 2012.