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Bank of America 500 Preview: Halfway to the Championship

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-way point in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This weekend's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is race No. 5 of 10 in the playoff format, which crowns the Sprint Cup Series champion. This will be the third of five intermediate oval events in the Chase and we should be able to examine the results at Chicago and this past weekend at Kansas for a good indicator of what could happen on 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 or Kansas, 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. Kyle Busch marched into victory lane for the fourth time this season at Atlanta with a very impressive performance. He out-battled and out-witted Joey Logano to win that Sunday evening in the 500-mile event at AMS. Considering that the No. 18 Toyota team is trying to climb back into the championship picture after the Kansas crash, we expect Busch to be a factor again at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Saturday night. However, he wasn't the only Busch brother of note that night at Atlanta. Kurt Busch, Kyle's older brother, was lurking and charging hard in the closing stages of that race. Had there been just 15 more laps the outcome could have been completely different. The older Busch sits seventh in the Chase Standings as we visit Charlotte this weekend and fresh off an impressive runner-up finish at Kansas. The Furniture Row Racing star will battle with his brother once again this Saturday night at CMS.

Even though the intermediate oval at Charlotte is similar to both Atlanta Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway in many respects, we still need to take a long 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 Kansas, but are historically good plays at the track in Charlotte. Here are the loop stats for the last 17 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.48795496035,255110.0
Kyle Busch14.58704348584,821107.2
Kasey Kahne10.77825937564,129100.5
Matt Kenseth15.27323494003,94795.3
Denny Hamlin13.56732171654,17593.3
Greg Biffle16.06663024373,78492.1
Carl Edwards11.96811231053,67689.5
Joey Logano9.64764431,80088.9
Jeff Gordon19.46491932883,52387.1
Mark Martin18.563782373,98787.1
Kurt Busch19.85412004513,10584.1
Tony Stewart16.76101892873,12483.6
Brian Vickers21.12911963321,65783.3
Clint Bowyer15.8524701152,82881.7
Jeff Burton15.4558106782,95781.1
Brad Keselowski18.3275701521,21580.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.22.45131461262,56578.2
Kevin Harvick16.857152323,20677.8
Jamie McMurray20.25431371282,41277.5
Ryan Newman18.9496581372,69376.8

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 five victories at the 1.5-mile oval in North Carolina. It was the Kevin Harvick show in the Coca-Cola 600 in May of this year. He took the lead from Kasey Kahne on the final green-flag run and cruised home to the victory, his second career win at the Charlotte oval. Coming off the big win at Kansas Speedway, Harvick has to be striding high coming to CMS this weekend. Although Harvick was the victor, it was a race dominated by four different drivers. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kahne all did their best to seize the checkered flag at the historic intermediate oval. These four drivers led a combined 366 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 at this facility. We've seen hearts broken and unlikely winners at Charlotte in recent years, and often times it comes down to one or two laps of fuel to decide which fate of the two. Who will win on Saturday in the Bank of America 500? Will Roush get Carl Edwards 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 break out of his slump and return to victory lane at an oval that has held so much success for him? Will championship contender Kenseth 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

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is trying to become a factor in the championship picture, and CMS promises to be a potential boost for the driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet. He upstaged both Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth this past weekend at Kansas, and he's looking for a repeat performance at Charlotte. The veteran driver has two career victories and eight Top-10 finishes at the 1.5-mile oval. His most recent outing at this track in May saw him lead in the final stages and pick up the victory in the Coca-Cola 600. That was one of three wins this season for the No. 29 team, two coming on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Charlotte. This RCR driver has stolen the spotlight and potentially the momentum coming into the Bank of America 500.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been successfully building some momentum and team chemistry during this season's Chase. That was until last week's crash and DNF at Kansas Speedway. Now he will refocus and try to climb back into the championship picture at Charlotte. Busch has won two intermediate oval events (Fort Worth and Atlanta) in 2013, and he's been a good historical performer at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His impressive 42 percent Top 5 rate at this oval is only bolstered by his recent Charlotte performances. Busch's last four trips to the North Carolina oval have yielded three Top-5 finishes and well over 200 laps led. The No. 18 Toyota team will rally at CMS.

Matt Kenseth -
Despite his stumble at Kansas Speedway, Kenseth still leads the championship standings coming to Charlotte. The good news for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team is that they have been the team to beat on these style ovals all season long. Kenseth has a series-best 465 laps led and four victories on the 1.5-mile ovals in 2013. He comes to a good venue for him and the No. 20 team this Saturday night. Charlotte Motor Speedway has yielded two victories and 14 Top-10 finishes to JGR star over the years. Kenseth led 112 laps here in the spring before events conspired to take him out of the running for the win. This driver and team has been razor sharp on the intermediate ovals this season, so they'll be among the leaders in the Bank of America 500.

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 well over 1,400 laps at this speedway during his career, so it wouldn't be that surprising at all to see him win this 500-mile event.

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

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 then moved to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012 and promptly won his fourth career Charlotte race in his first start at the facility with the No. 5 Chevrolet team. Over Kahne's 19 career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway he's led well over 900 laps, won four victories, and collected 11 Top-10 finishes. The struggling Hendrick Motorsports star needs a great performance in the worst way, so we expect the dynamic duo of Kahne and Francis to be on their "A" game this Saturday night.

Joey Logano -
Logano has been upstaging his champion teammate, Brad Keselowski, all season long and we expect that theme to continue at the Charlotte oval this weekend. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has five Top-5 finishes in the eight intermediate oval races of 2013, including a Top 5 this past weekend at Kansas Speedway. Logano's Charlotte stats are rock-solid with three Top 5 and six Top 10s in nine career starts at the famous North Carolina oval. His Top-5 finish in May's Coca-Cola 600 at CMS is a big endorsement of his potential this Saturday night. We expect Logano to be a Top 5 threat and potential dark horse contender to win.

Kurt Busch -
Busch will celebrate his one year anniversary with Furniture Row Racing this weekend. It was this race one year ago when the veteran driver jumped to the No. 78 Chevrolet and debuted with a 21st-place finish with this team. The last year has held tremendous success for this driver and team. Busch has posted 15 Top-10 finishes to this point in 2013, and has made the Chase for the first time for the young FRR team. His Charlotte resume holds a lot of success, including one victory and seven Top-10 finishes. Busch posted a brilliant third-place finish in May's Coca-Cola 600, so that's a good measure of potential for this driver and team this weekend.

Carl Edwards -
While Edwards' championship hopes have faded, his desire to compete and win races has not. His brilliant fifth-place finish at Kansas Speedway this past Sunday is evidence of that. The Roush Fenway Racing star will look to build on that effort with a great performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 1.5-mile tri-oval has been kind to Edwards over the years. His 10 Top-10 finishes in 17 career starts is a healthy 59 percent rate. While the No. 99 Ford won't be a major contender to win the Bank of America 500, Edwards will be nipping at the heels of the leaders this Saturday night.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Only Mark Martin has more Top 10s 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 four Top 10s in just the last four 1.5-mile oval starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star was in the running to win at Kansas Speedway this past weekend, and picked up the impressive third-place finish. We expect Gordon to challenge the Top 5 again in Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The Hendrick Motorsports Racing veteran is determined to get the best finish possible in this season's Chase. Earnhardt knows he needs a great performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway to keep that 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 few starts at this intermediate oval. Two of his last four trips to CMS have netted Top-10 finishes. Earnhardt has a pair of Top 10s in his last three intermediate oval starts entering this event, so he should stay on a roll this weekend at Charlotte.

Aric Almirola -
The RPM driver has been heating up as the Chase wears on. Almirola had respectable 13th- and 10th-place finishes at Chicago and Kansas, so the driver of the No. 43 Ford is performing well coming to Charlotte Motor Speedway. He has three Top 10s in the eight intermediate oval races this season, and only one of those efforts failed to crack the Top 20. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been "Steady Eddie" on these style tracks this season. Almirola finished 12th in this race one year ago, and we should see similar results in Saturday night's 500-mile marathon.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray has enjoyed some of his greatest success in NASCAR at the oval in Concord, North Carolina. He won his first career Cup race here in 2002 and he's a two-time winner at the track. While his eight Top 10s at this facility happened mostly earlier in his career, McMurray still finishes well in most every Charlotte race. He comes to the Bank of America 500 this Saturday night racing well of late. McMurray is ranked 14th in the driver standings and he has a pair of Top 5s and four Top 15s in the last six races. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet finished 11th at the similar oval in Atlanta a few weeks ago, and those results should be a good guide of what to expect at CMS.

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 start at Kansas Speedway this past weekend yielded an impressive seventh-place finish. That was his third Top 10 of the year on these size ovals. These performances are what we've come to expect from the No. 27 team at these facilities. Menard's last three Charlotte efforts have netted a pair of Top-15 finishes, and we expect much more for Saturday night's Bank of America 500.

Marcos Ambrose -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been a model of consistency on the intermediate ovals this season. Ambrose has a pair of Top 10s in those eight starts and he's cracked the Top 15 in the last five straight. The driver of the No. 9 Ford is fresh off a ninth-place finish at Kansas Speedway so he's riding a lot of momentum coming to North Carolina this Saturday night. Ambrose has 40 laps led and three Top 10s in his last five trips to Charlotte Motor Speedway. That's about as good as any oval he has in his Sprint Cup resume.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Once again Hamlin will head the flops list and this time at one of his better tracks. Atlanta Motor Speedway has held a lot of success for the No. 11 Toyota team the last couple years. Hamlin has three Top 5s and five Top 10s in his last five trips to Concord, North Carolina. However, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is still mired in an epic slump coming out of Kansas weekend. The Top 10 drought has now hit a jaw-dropping 16 straight races for Hamlin. It's clear that this driver and team are just making laps to finish the season, even at his best race tracks.

Mark Martin -
Martin's long season is drawing to an end. His stint as relief driver for Tony Stewart hasn't been the best experience, and his performance on intermediate ovals has been just as disappointing. Of his five Top-10 finishes this season, only one has 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 a crash and 34th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. That was his fourth finish outside the Top 30 in his last five starts at CMS. The potential is there for a good run for Martin, but the risk and stakes seem pretty high for the No. 14 team.

Danica Patrick -
The driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet is coming off arguably the worst performance of her season this past week at Kansas Speedway. Patrick was tangled up with multiple cars before the first lap was complete in the Hollywood Casino 400. The crash would retire the GoDaddy.com car to the garage for the remainder of the day and saddle Patrick with the 43rd-place finish. Things don't look promising for a rebound this week. Intermediate ovals have been perplexing for the SHR driver this season. Patrick's last two stops in Charlotte have netted uninspiring 29th- and 30th-place finishes.

Brian Vickers -
While Vickers has been nothing short of impressive on the series' short tracks in 2013, the mid-sized ovals have been an unsolved puzzle for the driver of the No. 55 Toyota. Vickers has six starts on the 1.5-mile ovals with only two Top 10s compared to three DNF's. He's started the Chase for the Cup with 38th- and 32nd-place finishes at Chicago and Kansas. Vickers' last two trips to Charlotte Motor Speedway have yielded subpar 18th- and 20th-place finishes. It all looks like a mediocre effort is taking shape for Saturday night's Bank of America 500.
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