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 and returns to points racing. 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 now. 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 Monster Energy Cup Series' many 1.5-mile tri-ovals. It's very similar to both Atlanta & 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

This weekend NASCAR stays in North Carolina and returns to points racing. 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 now. 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 Monster Energy Cup Series' many 1.5-mile tri-ovals. It's very similar to both Atlanta & 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 70-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. Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, who dominated this past weekend's 70-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 Larson 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 12 years or 24 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.81,1648221,0597,449110.6
Kyle Busch14.01,1755339086,728104.8
Denny Hamlin13.19483132926,25595.6
Matt Kenseth14.11,0114475375,76695.2
Kasey Kahne12.09717108945,22295.1
Joey Logano11.27641452513,69593.0
Chase Elliott19.7707210351490.6
Brad Keselowski13.46201972173,32589.7
Kevin Harvick14.49153183325,52588.3
Kurt Busch17.98632875715,19387.4
Martin Truex Jr.16.28292675325,07584.5
Kyle Larson17.92247081,18083.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.20.87572151624,06982.1
Austin Dillon16.02222671,39081.4
Ryan Newman16.1774861414,28780.1
Jamie McMurray17.97991711673,61979.0
Clint Bowyer17.26551181193,58078.8
Aric Almirola18.53162041,45672.6
Ryan Blaney26.81185070771.0
A.J. Allmendinger22.540179111,51167.2

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota teams have each won in the last four events at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track that bowtie teams dominated for years has become a venue of parity in the last couple seasons. With Kyle Busch's victory for the Toyota camp in last Saturday's All-Star Race, we'll see if CMS continues to be up for grabs this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600. Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. won this event one year ago. He dominated that event like no other race we've seen in recent memory. The Furniture Row Racing driver led a staggering 392 of the 400 laps and absolutely obliterated the field in last year's 600. Given Truex's two victories this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, this will be a much anticipated event for that racing stable. Looking to Ford, Kevin Harvick is fresh off a good performance in last week's All-Star Race. He didn't contend for the win, but came home a respectable sixth and was one of the faster cars on the track for most of the night. Harvick will share the top of the Ford assault with the Penske Racing teams of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

In our last race at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October, Jimmie Johnson led Chevrolet to victory lane with his strong performance in the Bank of America 500. The Hendrick Motorsports star led 155 laps and picked up the very important win during the Chase en route to his seventh championship. With his segment win in the All-Star Race last weekend, Johnson is poised to potentially return Chevrolet back to the top of the heap at the Charlotte oval. The other Chevy driver to keep a close eye on will be Chip Ganassi rising star Kyle Larson. He won the first two segments of All-Star night and easily had the best car on the track, but was frustrated in his efforts to win. Those came mostly from the very broken format of the All-Star Race. 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

Kyle Larson –
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has had a simply incredible season to this point in 2017. Larson comes into Memorial Day weekend as the championship standings leader, and he had a very strong performance finishing runner-up in last weekend's All-Star Race. Now the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet will set his sights on another achievement, winning the Coca-Cola 600. This will be his fourth start in this Memorial Day weekend classic. Larson's last start at Charlotte Motor Speedway yielded a strong fifth-place finish last October. Considering how strong this driver and team have been all season long on the intermediate ovals, and how strong the No. 42 car looked last weekend, Larson has to be considered one of the top contenders for the win.

Martin Truex Jr. –
He's been one of the hottest drivers on intermediate ovals the past three 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 dominated this event one year ago to collect his first-career Charlotte victory. The No. 78 Toyota team has two victories already this season on cookie cutter ovals. With wins at Las Vegas and Kansas, Truex has to be seen as a series threat to revisit victory lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He had a bit of a disappointing showing in the All-Star Race this past weekend, and that will be a huge motivator for the Coca-Cola 600.

Brad Keselowski –
The Penske Racing star has had a strong season on the intermediate oval circuit. Keselowski had a win to start the season at Atlanta, and he's had finishes of fifth-, sixth- and second-place in the three events since. The runner-up was an impressive effort at Kansas Speedway a couple weeks ago. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is a one-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2013) and he rides an impressive four-race Top-10 streak at the North Carolina oval into this weekend's action. Keselowski is always a threat when the Monster Energy Cup Series visits here, and his current level of performance on these style ovals is top notch.

Jimmie Johnson –
The Hendrick Motorsports star has amassed some impressive numbers over the years at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson leads all active drivers with eight- career wins at CMS, including four victories in the Coca-Cola 600. He has led a whopping 1,895-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 61-percent rate at the Concord, North Carolina speedway. Johnson is our last winner at CMS (last October's Bank of America 500) and he made a major challenge for the win in last weekend's All-Star Race. It would be no surprise to see him racing up front again this Sunday evening.

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

Kyle Busch –
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a tough-luck performer on the intermediate tracks, but he's showing signs of coming out of his slump with a bang. Busch had 59 laps led and a fifth-place finish at Kansas recently, and he had a very strong performance in last week's All-Star Race. The No. 18 team is waking up on these cookie cutter ovals. Busch has led over 900-career laps at this oval and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 39-percent rate. He's a factor each time we race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His sixth-place finish in last October's Bank of America 500 is indicative of what to expect this weekend.

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. Last October's engine failure snapped a strong seven-race Top-10 streak at Charlotte Motor Speedway for this driver and team. Harvick has fourth- and third-place finishes in his last two intermediate oval races (Fort Worth and Kansas). The current level of performance is there and the Charlotte history is undeniably strong. The driver of the No. 4 Ford will be a powerful performer in the Coca-Cola 600. Deploy him in your fantasy racing lineups with high confidence and high expectations.

Joey Logano –
The Penske Racing driver has been one of the strongest drivers in the Monster Energy Cup Series on the cookie cutter ovals for the last couple seasons. Logano's three Top-6 finishes this season on intermediate ovals speaks volumes of this fact. His Charlotte resume is pretty strong as well. The driver of the No. 22 Ford won at this track in the fall of 2015 and that raised his Top-10 rate at CMS to a lofty 56-percent. Logano should be dialed-in and have the handling package figured out after last weekend's All-Star Race. The bottom line is that Logano will be a top performer in this race and a strong bet for a Top-5 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

Ryan Blaney –
One of the less obvious top performers this weekend is Blaney and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 team. This pick is based solely on this driver and team's current level of performance. Blaney won a segment of the Open last week during All-Star night, and he's been razor sharp in recent intermediate oval outings. The young driver of the No. 21 Ford has led a combined 231 laps in his last two cookie cutter oval starts, and he won the pole and finished fourth at Kansas Speedway prior to All-Star week. Don't get caught up in Blaney's lackluster Charlotte numbers, he's going to rewrite his personal record book at this track Sunday evening.

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

Chase Elliott –
The high profile Hendrick Motorsports 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 Atlanta. The young driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet finished eighth in this event one year ago, and he returned in the fall to lead 103 laps in the Bank of America 500. Elliott still has a lot to prove at this particular track, and we know he's up to the task in this 600-mile marathon. He had a disappointing All-Star outing last weekend, and we believe that will only fuel his desire to be a top performer in the Coca-Cola 600.

Clint Bowyer –
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is coming off a strong performance in last weekend's All-Star Race. He won a segment of the Open and transferred into the All-Star Race field. Bowyer will now set his sights on a bigger prize in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600. He has one-career victory at the Charlotte oval and knows what it takes to win here. With two 11th-place finishes and two Top-10 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit this season, the No. 14 team is running at top speed on these style tracks entering the weekend. We have very high expectations for Bowyer and his Stewart Haas Racing team at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday evening.

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 fourth-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), and he rides a four-race Charlotte Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. That includes his sixth-place finish in this event one year ago and his eighth-place finish in last October's Bank of America 500. The veteran driver is cracking the Top 10 at a 50-percent rate this season on these style ovals, and that's good enough to warrant fantasy racing consideration for the Coca-Cola 600.

Kasey Kahne –
As a four-time winner at this track, we have to give Kahne the sleeper tag this week. Despite the inconsistent 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 finished a brilliant third in last October's Bank of America 500, and that effort padded his strong 54-percent career Top-10 rate at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jamie McMurray –
The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has always liked the Charlotte oval. McMurray won his first-career Monster Energy 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. His 11-career Top-10 finishes at this oval include last October's 10th-place finish in that installment of the Bank of America 500. McMurray's intermediate oval performance this season has been impeccable. He's one of only four drivers to have Top-10 finishes in all four of this season's events on 1.5 mile ovals. McMurray won't disappoint in Sunday evening's Charlotte battle.

Trevor Bayne –
The driver of the No. 6 Ford has had an unexpectedly strong season on the intermediate ovals this season. Bayne boasts finishes of 12th-, 13th-, 13th- and 10th-place on the cookie cutter tracks in 2017. That's a level of performance well above his career marks at those ovals. In Bayne's nine-career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway he's only been able to manage a subpar 22.8 average finish, but don't let that deter your expectations. He's set to register a career-best Charlotte finish this Sunday night, and he'll be off the radar screen for most fantasy racing players in weekly lineup leagues for the Coca-Cola 600.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Since announcing his forthcoming retirement, Earnhardt has not gotten the "bounce" in performance that most expected. In fact, he's struggled just as much as before the announcement. Charlotte Motor Speedway hasn't been a track of career success for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt's 33-career starts at CMS have only yielded 12 Top-10 finishes (36-percent). That doesn't bode well for his chances in the 600 this Sunday evening. The veteran driver is still searching for answers as his intermediate oval performances of this season illustrate. It's best to steer clear of Earnhardt and any fantasy racing expectations at Charlotte.

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 two Top 10s through the first 12 races of the season and sits a lowly 25th in the driver standings coming into the Coca-Cola 600. Menard's intermediate oval performance has been underwhelming at best with finishes of 25th-, 19th-, 36th- and 35th-place at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas. His two Top-10 finishes in 20 starts and 23.4 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.

Danica Patrick –
The fiery crash and DNF at Kansas recently sort of sum up Patrick's struggles this season on the intermediate ovals. The driver of the No. 10 Ford comes to Charlotte looking to turn things around. Luck has not been on Patrick's side. Three finishes outside the Top 20 and two DNF's tell the tale of this driver and team on these style ovals. Her Charlotte resume is not encouraging either. In nine-career starts Patrick has only managed one Top-15 finish and the average finish stands at an elevated 24.1. She won't likely finish on the lead lap in the Coca-Cola 600, and her Top-20 chances are a lowly 20-percent at best.

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 14 Top-10 finishes in 23-career starts works out to a strong 61-percent Top-10 rate. However, we have to recommend avoiding the No. 11 Toyota team this week. The current level of performance is concerning, and his efforts on cookie cutter ovals has been somewhat disappointing. Three of Hamlin's finishes on these style tracks have outside the Top-20 this season. It's been a puzzling state of affairs for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. We don't count on a breakout or rebound performance this weekend.

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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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