Bank of America 500 Preview: The Round of 12 Begins

Bank of America 500 Preview: The Round of 12 Begins

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We've reached the second round of the Chase for the Cup. This weekend's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is race four of 10 in the playoff format that crowns the Monster Energy Cup Series champion, and signals the beginning of the Round of 12 as four drivers were eliminated from the field of 16 last weekend after Dover. 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 this Sunday afternoon.

Even more applicable could be the results from the race at Kentucky Speedway in mid-July. Martin Truex Jr. marched into victory lane for the third of five times this season at the Sparta oval with a very impressive performance. He out-battled and out-witted Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to win that Saturday evening in the 400-mile event at Kentucky Speedway. Considering that the No. 78 Toyota team is leading the standings and setting the pace in the Chase, we expect Truex to be a big-time player at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday afternoon. However, he wasn't the only driver of note that night at Kentucky. Kyle Busch led 112 laps and finished fifth, due to poor pit strategy and difficult track position. Had the breaks fallen the other way the outcome could have been completely different. The driver carrying the momentum into Charlotte is Dover race-winner Busch. He easily made the cut for the Round of 12

We've reached the second round of the Chase for the Cup. This weekend's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is race four of 10 in the playoff format that crowns the Monster Energy Cup Series champion, and signals the beginning of the Round of 12 as four drivers were eliminated from the field of 16 last weekend after Dover. 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 this Sunday afternoon.

Even more applicable could be the results from the race at Kentucky Speedway in mid-July. Martin Truex Jr. marched into victory lane for the third of five times this season at the Sparta oval with a very impressive performance. He out-battled and out-witted Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to win that Saturday evening in the 400-mile event at Kentucky Speedway. Considering that the No. 78 Toyota team is leading the standings and setting the pace in the Chase, we expect Truex to be a big-time player at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday afternoon. However, he wasn't the only driver of note that night at Kentucky. Kyle Busch led 112 laps and finished fifth, due to poor pit strategy and difficult track position. Had the breaks fallen the other way the outcome could have been completely different. The driver carrying the momentum into Charlotte is Dover race-winner Busch. He easily made the cut for the Round of 12 of the Chase and now comes to Charlotte riding high after consecutive victories at Loudon and Dover. It's shaping up to be a three-way battle between Truex, Busch and Larson this weekend.

Even though the intermediate oval at Charlotte is similar to both Atlanta Motor Speedway and Kentucky 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 they are historically good plays at the track in Charlotte. Here are the loop stats for the last 25 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson14.01,2128651,0947,843110.4
Kyle Busch13.51,2166009717,127105.6
Matt Kenseth 13.71,0464735376,16396.1
Denny Hamlin12.81,0063373026,59495.8
Erik Jones7.0507030994.6
Kasey Kahne12.99877108945,25593.6
Joey Logano11.87881452513,86291.9
Kevin Harvick14.19643403775,86089.1
Kurt Busch17.49062905725,59288.0
Martin Truex Jr.15.78653567655,47386.9
Brad Keselowski15.06281972173,34485.9
Austin Dillon13.92832891,75284.5
Daniel Suarez11.0445022083.4
Kyle Larson19.82557981,40382.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.38112161624,37982.2
Ryan Newman15.8814861414,54880.2
Jamie McMurray17.78461731673,93279.4
Clint Bowyer17.17021191193,92579.0
Chase Elliott24.3717210353376.7
Ryan Blaney26.21356088374.4

Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing have each had quite a bit of success at CMS the last few seasons. These are the major teams for all three manufacturers, and they've each won at the North Carolina oval since the 2015 season. However, breaking that trend, was the improbable Austin Dillon in May's Coca-Cola 600. The race played out into a fuel mileage battle, and the No 3 Chevrolet team made all the right calls to put Dillon in the position to win. It was the young driver's first-career Monster Energy Cup Series victory. The No. 78 team of Truex was the most dominant of the night. The Furniture Row Racing star led 233 laps but finished a distant third due to the fuel mileage play of the No. 3 team. This driver and team has been exceedingly fast at the North Carolina speedway ever since Truex's win in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600. Also on the radar screen that night was the No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch. He led the second-most laps on the night with 63 and finished runner-up to Dillon as he was furiously trying to track down the No. 3 Chevrolet. So once again, we have two of our three prime championship contenders in the focus of the discussion again this week.

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. Stage racing, which started at the beginning of this season, should only heighten the probability that Sunday's race could come down to who has the best pit strategy. Who will win in the Bank of America 500? Will Penske Racing get Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski back into victory lane and spark Keselowski's championship hopes? Or will rival Chevrolet drivers Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Larson surprise and take a trip to winner's circle? Will Kevin Harvick break out of his Chase-slump and return to victory lane at an oval that has held so much success for him? Will championship contender Busch 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

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex's championship chances are growing by the day, the motivation to perform won't be in short supply at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The urgency to advance in the Chase is a powerful motivator. If nothing else, we have to lean on the performance that Truex put on in his last two intermediate oval starts. Victories at both Kentucky and Chicago give him the edge entering Chase race number four. He's now won three of the last four races on intermediate ovals leading up to this crucial event. Considering how strong the No. 78 Toyota team was in the Coca-Cola 600 earlier this season, it would seem that this driver and team are the crème of the crop this weekend.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been successfully building incredible momentum and team chemistry during this season's Chase. He has won the last two races of the playoff and rolls into Charlotte riding high to challenge Truex for the championship. Busch has drawn near to Truex in the Chase standings after the Round of 16 cut and now looms large in the championship picture once again at Charlotte. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won two poles and claimed three Top-5 finishes in the last four intermediate oval races, and he's been a good historical performer at Charlotte Motor Speedway over his career. His impressive 41-percent Top-5 rate at this oval is only bolstered by his recent Charlotte performances. He finished runner-up for the third time in his career at this facility in May. There would be no better time than now to break through for that first Charlotte win.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi racer has been impeccable in the second half of the season on the cookie cutter ovals. With two runner-up finishes and four Top 10s in the last five intermediate oval events, the No. 42 team has to be very confident heading into Sunday's Bank of America 500. Larson kicked off the Chase with a strong fifth-place finish at the similar oval in Chicago. All indicators are that this team and driver are prepared for Sunday. Larson picked up his best-career Charlotte finish in this event one year ago when he came home fifth in that installment of the Bank of America 500. This oval has not held a lot of success for this young driver, but current momentum trumps that card this weekend.

Kevin Harvick -
After disappointing finishes at Loudon and Dover, Harvick is trying to become a factor in the championship picture again with the start of this new round in the Chase. Charlotte Motor Speedway promises to be a potential boost for the driver of the No. 4 Ford. He has been very strong on these style ovals in recent months with three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes over those five starts. The veteran driver has three-career victories and 15 Top-10 finishes at the 1.5-mile oval in North Carolina. His most recent outing at this track in May saw him win the pole, lead 45 laps and finish eighth in the Coca-Cola 600. He's visited the Top 10 in seven of his last eight Charlotte starts now. That is the type of consistency that could revive the championship hopes of this driver and team.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star has been one of the most consistent drivers in the series this season on the intermediate ovals. Keselowski has one victory and five Top-10 finishes in the seven events on ovals similar to Charlotte Motor Speedway. He's off and rolling in the playoff with finishes of sixth-, fourth- and 10th-place to begin the Chase. Keselowski won this event four years ago and he's racked up six Top 10s in his last eight Charlotte starts. With the championship still looming large, and motivation to get that win and automatic pass to the next round of the Chase, we expect Keselowski to be one motivated driver in this 500-mile event.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star finished fourth-place in the first race of the Chase with his strong performance at the intermediate oval in Chicago. That finish is a good barometer of the No. 11 Toyota team right now on these cookie cutter ovals. He has three-straight Top-5 finishes on the 1.5-mile oval circuit. Hamlin has an amazing 12 Top-10 finishes in his last 14 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The veteran driver has led over 300 laps for his career at this North Carolina oval. Despite never having won at this historic track, it's clear that Hamlin is one of the most consistent drivers in the Monster Energy Cup Series at this facility. We believe he presents a strong upside fantasy racing play in this Sunday's 500-mile thriller in Charlotte.

Jimmie Johnson -
The eight-time Charlotte winner checks in on the solid plays list for this event. After Top 10s at Chicago and Dover, Johnson advanced in the Chase at Dover last week. The Hendrick Motorsports star is gathering some momentum heading into the Round of 12. 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 2014 and 2016 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The seven-time champion will definitely use that past experience and his current success at this oval this weekend. Johnson can pop and surprise win at this track on any given race weekend. He carries that kind of homerun potential into Sunday's Bank of America 500.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth boasts four Top 10s in seven starts this season on intermediate ovals. His laps led on these 1.5-mile tracks has dropped to zero in 2017, but he's still laboring to Top-5 and Top-10 finishes by the checkered flag. The veteran comes to a good venue for him and the No. 20 team this Sunday afternoon. Charlotte Motor Speedway has yielded two victories and 20 Top-10 finishes to JGR star over the years. Kenseth rides a three-race Charlotte Top-10 streak into this weekend and boasts four Top 10s in his last five starts at the oval. With a new round in the Chase beginning and a victory carrying the weight of an automatic ticket to the next round, we expect to see some real urgency from Kenseth and the Joe Gibbs Racing team in this 500-mile battle.

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

Erik Jones -
The rookie Furniture Row Racing driver has had quite a season to this point. Jones has four Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes to this point and looks like a good bet to walk away with the Rookie of the Year honors come November. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota made his Charlotte debut this past May, and turned many heads. Jones qualified fifth on the starting grid and finished seventh after that marathon 600-mile race. He would race among the Top 10 all night in that event, and it was quite a performance. The young driver racked up a similar sixth-place finish at Kentucky Speedway later in the summer. Jones should no trouble recreating his Charlotte success in Sunday's fourth race of the Chase.

Chase Elliott -
The Hendrick Motorsports driver is determined to get the best finish possible in this season's Chase. Elliott knows he needs a great performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway to keep that a possibility and to advance to the next round of the Chase. The No. 24 team has enjoyed a lot of success on the intermediate ovals this season. Elliott has racked up four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in the seven events thus far. However, it's his 42-laps led and runner-up finish at the similar oval in Chicago to kick off the Chase that speaks volumes of his potential for this race. Elliott has some up-and-down performances at Charlotte the past two seasons, but he should be solid to turn in a Top-10 performance in the Bank of America 500.

Joey Logano -
Logano has been pretty consistent on these intermediate ovals this season. What he lacks in terms of wins, he makes up for with laps led and Top-10 finishes. The Penske Racing driver has two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in the seven intermediate oval races of 2017. Logano's Charlotte stats are strong with five Top 5 and nine Top 10s in 17-career starts at the famous North Carolina oval. He finished eighth- and seventh-place in his last two cookie cutter oval starts at Kentucky and Chicago. The veteran driver isn't racing for the championship, but we expect Logano to be racing with the leaders at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jamie McMurray -
After a ninth-place finish at the Monster Mile last weekend, McMurray barely made the cut for the Round of 12. However, he's still alive in the championship picture, and the good news is he's visiting a 1.5-mile oval to kickoff this second round of the playoff. The intermediate ovals have been very kind to McMurray this season. He has six Top-10 finishes in the seven events to-date, and he's finished no worse than 12th on these ovals this season. Charlotte has held success for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver over the years. McMurray is a two-time winner at CMS, and owns 11 Top-10 finishes at the facility. His last two starts at the speedway have yielded 12th and 10th-place finishes. Those are good marks to expect for the No. 1 team in this very important race.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing driver needs a big performance at Charlotte to keep him advancing forward in the Chase for the Cup. Blaney's best ovals this season have been the intermediate size tracks. With 231 laps led and three Top-10 finishes, these facilities are right in his wheelhouse. Blaney finished 10th- and 11th-place most recently at Kentucky and Chicago, and that's a good barometer of where this team is right now. The driver of the No. 21 Ford's career history at Charlotte has been inconsistent at best, but he has the potential and momentum right now to buck that trend. We expect a Top-15 finish for Blaney in Sunday's Bank of America 500.

Daniel Suarez -
The impressive Joe Gibbs Racing rookie has been heating up down the stretch. He's not involved in the Chase for the Cup, but it's clear that Suarez is gearing up for a big season next year. He has three Top 10s in the last four races and that span includes a respectable 12th-place finish at the similar oval of Chicago to start the Chase. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has been gradually improving over the season on these intermediate tracks. He nabbed a seventh-place finish at Kansas in the spring, and an 11th-place finish at Charlotte in May. Those performances should set the stage for this rookie driver very nicely. We expect to see Suarez challenge the Top 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has had a strong career record at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His four-career victories and 14 Top-10 finishes at this oval are enviable numbers by any comparison. However, most of that hardware and accomplishments came much earlier in his career. Kahne's body of work here in recent seasons has left a lot to be desired. His last victory came here in 2012 and only one of his last five starts at Charlotte have netted a Top-10 finish. Kahne's intermediate oval work in 2017 has been abysmal. He has one Top-15 in his last five starts on these style tracks and two DNF's. That average finish across the span stands at a lowly 29.4. There are better options out there in the driver field with so many young and talented drivers now in the series.

Ryan Newman -
Newman wound up on the outside looking in after last week's first round cut of the Chase to 12 drivers. His 23rd- and pair of 13th-place finishes in round one left him just below the cut line. The RCR veteran will look to regroup and prepare for next year in the remaining races. Charlotte Motor Speedway has held a lot of success over the years for Newman. He has 15 Top-10 finishes in 33 starts (46-percent) at the North Carolina oval. However, the 1.5-mile oval performance of this driver and team this season has been below average. Newman has only one Top-10 and a bloated 24.0 average finish in his last five starts on the cookie cutter tracks. If you're looking for middle tier driver help in weekly lineup leagues, Newman isn't likely your man in the Bank of America 500.

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran got off to a struggling start to the Chase, and as a result he missed the cut for the Round of 12. Busch opened with 19th-, 37th-, and 20th-place finishes and is not in a good place coming to Charlotte. We'd like to think he can turn it around this weekend, but recent intermediate oval performances suggest otherwise. Busch has only two Top 10s in his last five starts on similarly configured ovals. The last was a subpar 19th-place finish at Chicago. Charlotte has been good for the driver of the No. 41 Ford in recent outings. He rides a five-race Charlotte Top-10 streak into this weekend. However, the current state of affairs for this driver and team make him a risky fantasy racing play for the weekend.

Paul Menard -
Menard and the No. 27 RCR team are struggling to round out their 2017 season. The veteran driver has only one Top-15 finish in his last five races and looking for answers to end the slump coming to Charlotte this weekend. Menard's intermediate oval resume this season is a string of not quite good performances. The seven starts average out to a 23.3 average finish. The Charlotte oval too has been a track of struggles for Menard. He has just two Top 10s in 21-career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It would seem that the chips are stacked against Menard in this one.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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