Coca-Cola 600 Preview: Memorial Day Marathon

Coca-Cola 600 Preview: Memorial Day Marathon

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This weekend NASCAR stays in North Carolina for racing action. On the heels of the recently completed All-Star Race, we return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600. This has been the traditional event for Memorial Day weekend for many years. This 600-mile marathon, the longest race of the season, 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 Series' many 1.5-mile tri-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 high-speed oval, 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. The extra 100-miles raced may not seem like a lot, but rest assured it's enough to make a major difference in who wins and who loses this Sunday night.

This past weekend's All-Star Race has given us our

This weekend NASCAR stays in North Carolina for racing action. On the heels of the recently completed All-Star Race, we return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600. This has been the traditional event for Memorial Day weekend for many years. This 600-mile marathon, the longest race of the season, 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 Series' many 1.5-mile tri-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 high-speed oval, 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. The extra 100-miles raced may not seem like a lot, but rest assured it's enough to make a major difference in who wins and who loses this Sunday night.

This past weekend's All-Star Race 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 113-lap All-Star Race gave us a sneak peek at the strong 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 cooling evening air that will be doing a victory burnout at the end of the night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The team that starts out this race the fastest doesn't always end the evening the fastest, as we have seen many times over the years. We believe that this past weekend's All-Star Race could be the best indicator of who has the speed early in a run, but over the long green-flag runs it could be entirely different. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who dominated this past weekend's 113-lap exhibition event, should show up with the same speed that they had throughout the All-Star Race. But again, that may not add up to victory lane. A late caution flag, pit stops, long green-flag runs etc. could conspire to put others into victory lane, like it did with Joey Logano in the All-Star Race.

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. The short segments of the All-Star Race do nothing to replicate the long green flag runs we'll see in the Coca-Cola 600. For this race, the loop data from Charlotte Motor Speedway will play a significant role in our fantasy racing picks. The 1.5-mile oval 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 11 years or 22 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson14.91,1026998996,718109.0
Kyle Busch13.51,0944999076,202106.1
Kasey Kahne12.09226898944,94497.4
Matt Kenseth15.09394285325,18795.5
Denny Hamlin12.88732882405,54794.9
Joey Logano9.67111202473,21693.6
Carl Edwards10.59611471375,13090.8
Greg Biffle16.07593134374,32788.0
Brad Keselowski14.55451692172,68787.8
Kevin Harvick13.98422703204,97587.7
Kurt Busch18.97842805714,55287.2
Austin Dillon13.016721797885.3
Brian Vickers21.44022023322,29582.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.17152101623,76481.9
Martin Truex Jr.17.17551491404,36281.1
Tony Stewart17.46751912873,51980.9
Clint Bowyer17.06331181173,46780.8
Ryan Newman17.0699831403,74879.2
Jamie McMurray18.27201691673,28379.0
Kyle Larson21.415947862476.8

Chevrolet teams have gotten the best of the competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway for years, but there are recent signs that this could potentially change. Ford and Toyota teams have won the last two races at this intermediate oval. The track that bowtie teams dominated for years seems to be becoming a venue of parity. With Joey Logano's victory for the Ford camp in last Saturday's All-Star Race, we'll see if CMS is truly up for grabs this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600. Toyota driver Carl Edwards won this event one year ago. He out-dueled Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. to claim his first-career win at Charlotte. Given the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, this will be a much anticipated event for that racing stable.

Speaking of Harvick, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran is fresh off a strong performance in last week's All-Star Race. Despite the subpar finish (11th-place), the No. 4 Chevrolet was one of the fastest cars on the track most of the night. He led 21 laps and was very strong in the first segment. In our last race at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October, Logano led Ford to victory lane with his dominant performance in the Bank of America 500. The Penske Racing star led 227 laps and claimed his first-career win at the North Carolina tri-oval. With his win in the All-Star Race last weekend, Logano is poised to potentially pull the spring sweep of Charlotte. The potential for the All-Star / Coca-Cola 600 sweep is something to keep in mind this weekend. It has happened in the recent past and is not completely unheard of in the history of NASCAR. In 2010 former Penske Racing star Kurt Busch completed the sweep of All-Star weekend and Coca-Cola 600 weekend with his big victory in 2010s Memorial Day weekend marathon. In 2008 it was Kahne who broke out the broom at Charlotte and swept away both the All-Star and Coca-Cola 600 trophies. Could Logano be poised to repeat that scenario this weekend? Given how he ran away from the field in the final segment of the All-Star Race, we would rate those odds as at least a reasonable possibility. We'll highlight all the drivers who can guide your fantasy racing teams to success this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has been one of the strongest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series on the cookie-cutter ovals the last couple seasons. Logano won twice on these style ovals last season and although he's yet to win on them in 2016 he's been very strong. Prior to the All-Star Race victory last weekend, the driver of the No. 22 Ford has led 149 laps and grabbed three Top-5 finishes on the intermediate ovals dating back to last season's finale at Homestead. Logano's Charlotte resume is pretty strong as well. He won last October's Bank of America 500, and he's led close to 250 laps in just his last two starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The bottom line is that Logano is a top contender for the win and sure bet for a Top-5 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been the top performer on intermediate ovals dating back to last season's finale in Homestead. He has three victories and five Top-5 finishes in the five 1.5-mile oval races to-date. 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, he has never won at this 1.5-mile track, but he's been painfully close on more than one occasion. Busch has led over 900-career laps at this oval and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 42-percent rate. He's a factor each time we race here, and it's just a matter of time before all the winning ingredients come together for the No. 18 Toyota team at this oval.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a three-time Charlotte winner, and he's led over 300 laps at this facility since the 2013 season. In addition, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran is a one-time All-Star winner at this oval. In our last points race at CMS, he battled with the leaders for the full 500-miles of action and finished runner-up in last October's Bank of America 500. It would appear Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have things figured out well heading into this Sunday night's long race at CMS. Harvick finished runner-up in our last intermediate oval race at Kansas a couple weeks ago. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet will be a powerful contender in the Coca-Cola 600.

Brad Keselowski -
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion had a potential victory escape him in this past weekend's All-Star Race, finishing second after racing strong in all three segments and leading 39 of the 113 laps. A slightly faster teammate in the No. 22 Ford was his undoing that night. He'll be hungry to make up for that disappointment with a great run in the Coca-Cola 600. Keselowski's short Charlotte resume isn't that impressive, but we must remember he won 2013's Bank of America 500 for his first-career victory at this oval. With one victory and over 100 laps led this season on intermediate ovals, the Penske Racing star is one of our top performers on these style tracks.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has amassed some impressive numbers over the years at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson leads all active drivers with seven career wins at CMS, including four victories in the Coca-Cola 600. He has led a whopping 1,735-career laps at the Charlotte oval, and that statistic needs absolutely no commentary. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet cracks the Top 10 at an impressive 59-percent rate at the Concord, North Carolina speedway. Johnson has been a top performer on these intermediate ovals this season with one victory and three Top-5 finishes in the four 1.5-mile oval races to-date.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards owns some great career numbers here, and his current trends point towards another Top-10 finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star boasts an astonishing 68-percent Top-10 rate at CMS over his 22-career starts. That includes his current five-race Top-10 streak at the North Carolina oval. Edwards won this event one year ago for his first-career victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so he comes into this Coca-Cola 600 as the defending event champion. The veteran driver has one pole position and two Top 10s in four intermediate oval races so far this season. All the ingredients are in place for Edwards to outperform expectations in this 600-mile marathon.

Denny Hamlin -
Historically speaking, Hamlin is a great performer at Charlotte's 1.5-mile tri-oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star seems to bring out his best each time we visit here despite how he's performing in general at the time. His 13 Top-10 finishes in 21-career starts works out to a strong 62-percent Top-10 rate. That includes his current three-race Top-10 streak at CMS entering the Coca-Cola 600. Hamlin has been struggling on the intermediate ovals this season, but don't let that deter a fantasy racing start for the No. 11 Toyota team this Sunday night. This veteran driver really likes racing at this oval and it shows emphatically in his career numbers here.

Kurt Busch -
Busch's tenacity was on full display last Saturday night in the All-Star Race. He piloted the No. 41 Chevrolet to a strong fifth-place finish in that exhibition event. The veteran driver was in the mix for the win at the end of the night, and that's all you can ask. Busch is a one-time winner of this event (2010) but he generally has an up-and-down resume at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His career 29-percent Top-10 rate at this oval has been bolstered by more recent visits since moving to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014. 11th-, 10th- and fifth-place finishes have been his last three Charlotte efforts. Busch's cookie-cutter oval stats this season have been near-flawless with two poles, 93 laps led and four Top-10 finishes in the four races to-date.

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

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he enters this weekend as one of the more consistent drivers in the series on intermediate ovals. The Joe Gibbs Racing star won both Charlotte pole positions last season and he finished a strong fourth in this event one year ago. Kenseth also qualified on the outside pole and finished fourth in our last intermediate oval race at Kansas a couple weekends ago. We expect the driver of the No. 20 Toyota and his high-flying team to come to Charlotte well-prepared this Sunday evening.

Chase Elliott -
The high profile rookie driver has been very strong on the cookie-cutter ovals this season. Elliott has three Top-10 finishes in his four intermediate oval starts to-date. That includes a very impressive fifth-place finish at the similar oval in Fort Worth. The young driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet will be making just his second-career start in a points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday night. However, Elliott's very strong showing in this past weekend's All-Star Race and Sprint Showdown are good indicators of the No. 24 team's potential this weekend.

Kasey Kahne -
As a four-time winner at this track, we have to give Kahne the sleeper tag this week. Despite the slow start to the season, we have to look to what he has accomplished here over the years. Kahne is a three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, so there's just something intangible about his performances in this particular Charlotte event. With over 1,100 career laps led at this facility, we're more than familiar with seeing the Hendrick Motorsports star race among the leaders here. Kahne has Top 10s in one of his last three Charlotte outings, so the No. 5 Chevrolet should be dialed-in for this 600-mile event. He finished a steady 12th in this event one year ago.

Martin Truex Jr. -
He's been one of the hottest drivers on intermediate ovals the past two years. Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team come to Charlotte looking to make some gains in the championship standings, and a good outing in the Coca-Cola 600 will make that happen. Truex only has six-career Top-10 finishes at CMS, but that's of little concern this weekend. Two of those came just last year alone. His performance to this point on intermediate ovals this season has been strong. The veteran driver has one pole, 347 laps led and two Top 10s in the four cookie-cutter oval races. A career-best Charlotte finish could be in store for the No. 78 team.

Jamie McMurray -
The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has always liked the Charlotte oval. McMurray won his first-career Sprint Cup Series race here way back in 2002, and he has won here as recently as 2010 when he took the checkers first in the Bank of America 500. In more recent performances the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has a pair of Top-5 finishes and four Top-20 finishes in his last four starts at the Concord oval. McMurray's intermediate oval finishes have been improving with each start this season. There's good reason to believe that trend line will continue in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

Kyle Larson -
Simply incredible, is the only phrase that describes Larson's All-Star outing last weekend. After winning the Sprint Showdown and threatening to win the All-Star Race this past weekend, Larson hopes that the Coca-Cola 600 will be his encore act. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has had a bit of an up-and-down season in 2016, but he has managed three Top-10 finishes to this point and is improving each week. The intermediate ovals have been a struggle to this point, but Larson's effort this past week at Charlotte Motor Speedway should set him up for success this weekend.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Tony Stewart -
The one-time Charlotte winner will attempt to reverse his recent fortunes with a good outing in the Coca-Cola 600. Smoke has only one Top-10 finish this season since returning from his pre-season back injury. Unfortunately for the No. 14 Chevrolet team, the Charlotte resume for Stewart isn't that great. He has only two Top 10s in his last eight races at this 1.5-mile track. With three finishes outside the Top 20 in his last three starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we have to look elsewhere for our fantasy racing help this Sunday evening.

Clint Bowyer -
The HScott Motorsports veteran has traditionally struggled at Charlotte Motor Speedway over his career. Bowyer's five Top-10 finishes in 20 starts works out to a lowly 25-percent Top-10 rate at the North Carolina speedway. There are certainly better intermediate ovals in his resume. Bowyer's struggles this season have been particularly bad on these 1.5-mile ovals. His four starts has yielded two finishes outside the Top 30 and an average finish of 28.5. Prospects for a turnaround in the Coca-Cola 600 look pretty slim. Bowyer was practically invisible in the Sprint Showdown, and that could be a preview of things to come.

Paul Menard -
To say that Menard's season has gotten off on the wrong foot would be a big understatement. The Richard Childress Racing veteran has only one Top-10 finish through the first 12 races of the season and sits a lowly 22nd in the driver standings coming into the Coca-Cola 600. Menard's intermediate oval performance has been underwhelming at best with finishes of 18th-, 15th-, 26th- and 40th-place at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas. His two Top-10 finishes in 18 starts and 23.1 average finish at the Charlotte oval make the picture very clear. Don't rely on the No. 27 team for fantasy racing success this weekend.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has dealt with many struggles this season. Biffle has no Top-10 finishes through the first 12 races and is 24th overall in the championship standings coming to Charlotte. Of particular concern is his lack of speed and performance on the 1.5-mile ovals. With finishes of 13th-, 20th-, 39th- and 27th-place on the four events to-date, Biffle's average finish is hovering around 24.8. The veteran driver has cracked the Top 10 only once in his last six visits to Charlotte Motor Speedway. We don't see these struggles ending any time soon for the driver of the No. 16 Ford.

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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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