Coca-Cola 600 Preview: The Longest Race of the Season

Coca-Cola 600 Preview: The Longest Race of the Season

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 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.

Last weekend's All-Star Race has

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 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.

Last 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 fair preview of what we should see this Sunday evening. While the rules package on the cars for both races are completely different, the 90-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. If we can take anything away from this past weekend's All-Star Race, it could be who has the speed early in a run, but over the long green-flag runs it could be entirely different. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. 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 Austin Dillon in this event one year ago.

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 13 years or 26 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson13.71,2608751,0948,153109.8
Kyle Busch14.11,2396219937,262104.9
Denny Hamlin12.41,0443543476,93196.4
Kasey Kahne12.81,0437138965,49393.3
Kevin Harvick13.79954265266,19791.0
Joey Logano12.67881462513,86489.3
Martin Truex Jr.15.19073828565,80988.5
Kurt Busch17.69622955725,92388.1
Brad Keselowski15.06811982173,65985.8
Kyle Larson18.7320119201,72185.8
Chase Elliott19.81058711586785.2
Daniel Suarez8.51036044184.9
Austin Dillon14.13453992,05784.7
Jamie McMurray17.29011801714,26480.3
Ryan Newman16.8837871414,59078.6
Clint Bowyer17.57091191193,96778.4
Ryan Blaney23.2189701,13676.9
Erik Jones12.0549032075.8
Aric Almirola19.03243241,53072.2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.72442321,19768.4

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota teams have each won in the last five events at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track that bowtie teams dominated for years has become a venue of parity the last few seasons. With Kevin Harvick's victory for the Ford 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. Chevrolet driver, Austin Dillon, won this event one year ago. He ran a smart race, stretched the fuel mileage, and despite only leading the final 2 laps, Dillon took home the win in a thrilling upset. While we don't look for a repeat of the No. 3 Chevrolet in victory lane this Sunday night, a similar scenario could likely play out. Looking to Ford, Harvick is fresh off a fantastic performance in last week's All-Star Race. He nabbed his second-career victory in that exhibition event, and he's really been the man to beat on intermediate ovals this season. Harvick will once again draw the most attention this race weekend.

In our last race at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October, Martin Truex Jr. led Chevrolet Toyota into victory lane with his strong performance in the Bank of America 500. The Furniture Row Racing star led 91 laps and picked up the very important win during the Chase en route to his first championship. With his clearly evident speed and 17 laps led in the All-Star Race last weekend, Truex is poised to potentially return Toyota back to the top of the heap at the Charlotte oval. The Chevrolet driver to keep a close eye on will be Chip Ganassi Racing star Kyle Larson. He had race from the back of the field to the front kind of speed, 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

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a three-time Charlotte winner, and he's led over 500 laps at this facility since the 2013 season. In addition, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran is a two-time All-Star winner at this oval, coming off last weekend's All-Star victory. Last October's third-place finish in the Bank of America 500 was his sixth Top-5 finish in his last 10 Charlotte starts. Harvick has won three of the four intermediate oval events of this season, and he finished runner-up in the other one. 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.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been a tough luck performer at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the years. However, he's really been the only close match for Harvick this season on the 1.5-mile tracks. Busch has one victory and one runner-up finish on the cookie cutter ovals this season. He's a perfect four-four-four in Top 10s at these facilities. Busch has led close to 1,000-career laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 39-percent rate. How he's still winless at this oval in 28 starts is nothing short of astonishing. He's a factor each time we race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His runner-up finish in this event one year ago is indicative of what to expect this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex was the driver to beat on these style ovals last season, but this year has been a bit of a different story. The Furniture Row Racing star has been great, just not dominant on these tracks in 2018. Truex has nabbed three Top 5, and most recently a runner-up finish at Kansas, in the four intermediate oval events of this season. He had encouraging speed at Charlotte last weekend during the All-Star Race, and that's a good sign coming into the Coca-Cola 600. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota has won two of the last four points races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including last October's Bank of America 500. Truex led well over 300 total laps in his two Charlotte starts last season, and that makes him unforgettable heading into Sunday night's 600-mile battle.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is looking to continue his speed and success on the cookie cutter ovals this season, and maybe even take it up a notch this weekend. Larson has third- and fourth-place finishes in two of his last three outings on these style tracks, including 101 laps led at Kansas a couple weeks ago. It's clear that the No. 42 team is figuring out these new Camaros and they're getting better as the season wears on. Larson's Charlotte stats are a bit of a mixed bag, but two of his last three trips to this North Carolina oval have netted Top-10 finishes. Considering the speed this driver and team displayed in last weekend's All-Star Race, we have to keep Larson in the conversation this week as one of the outside contenders.

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

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 few seasons. Logano's four Top-7 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 steady 50-percent. Logano should be dialed-in and ready to race after last weekend's third-place finish in the All-Star Race. The bottom line is that Logano will be a top performer in this 600-mile event and a strong bet for a Top-5 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski has had a steady season on the intermediate oval circuit. Keselowski had a runner-up finish to start the season at Atlanta, and he finished sixth at Las Vegas the following week. Keselowski was a bit off at both Texas and Kansas, but he's looking to rebound this weekend at Charlotte. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is a one-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2013) and he has four Top 10s in his last six starts at the North Carolina oval coming into this weekend's action. Keselowski knows how to navigate this oval, and the longer race distance plays to his strengths as a driver. We expect the No. 2 team to look like their usual selves this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
Busch will look to make up for his heartbreaking All-Star performance with a Top-10 finish in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600. He certainly has the pedigree at this track to demand fantasy racing expectations. Busch is a one-time winner of this event (2010), and he has four Charlotte Top 10s in his last five starts coming into this weekend's action. That includes his sixth-place finish in this event one year ago and his sixth-place finish the year before that one. The veteran driver is cracking the Top 10 at a 75-percent rate this season on these style ovals, and that's good enough to warrant fantasy racing consideration for the Coca-Cola 600.

Clint Bowyer -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is looking to make up for a crash and DNF in last weekend's All-Star Race. Bowyer is resilient and he's proven his worth on these style tracks in 2018. He has one-career victory at the Charlotte oval and knows what it takes to win here. With three Top-15 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. The Charlotte oval has presented its challenges to this veteran driver in recent seasons, but we have very high expectations for Bowyer and his Stewart Haas Racing team at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday evening.

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

Ryan Blaney -
One of the less obvious top performers this weekend is Blaney and the Penske Racing No. 12 team. This pick is based solely on this driver and team's current level of performance. Blaney has been pretty sharp in recent intermediate oval outings. The young driver of the No. 12 Ford has one pole position, 55 laps led and a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last three intermediate oval races. He got caught up in someone else's trouble and crashed a Kansas a couple weeks ago, but he should rebound nicely at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 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.

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 16 Top-10 finishes in 25-career starts works out to a strong 64-percent Top-10 rate. The No. 11 Toyota team has been somewhat inconsistent on the intermediate tracks this season with two Top-10 finishes in the four events to-date. However, his last outing was a strong fifth-place finish at Kansas Speedway a couple weeks ago. Hamlin led 7 laps and finished an impressive fourth this past weekend in the All-Star Race. That sets up pretty well for Sunday night's marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Erik Jones -
The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver is on a roll this season on the 1.5-mile tracks. Finishes of 11th-, eighth-, fourth- and seventh-place have been his body of work on the intermediate ovals this season. The No. 20 Toyota team have truly been on-point at these facilities. This will be Jones' third-career start at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend. He finished seventh- in this event one year ago, and finished 17th in last October's Bank of America 500. Jones clearly likes racing on this oval. His runner-up finish in last weekend's Monster Energy Open is evidence of that fact. We expect this young driver to stay hot on the cookie cutter ovals in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

Chase Elliott -
The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team is still figuring out this new Chevy Camaro. Elliott's performance thus far this season is evidence of this fact. He has 10th-, 11th- and 12th-place finishes in three of the four intermediate oval events to-date. While that level of performance falls below what we expect for Elliott, they're still good enough performances to warrant low-end Top 10 consideration. He has two Top 10s in five-career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and that includes his runner-up finish in last October's Bank of America 500. The No. 24 Chevrolet team won't turn many heads this Sunday night, but Elliott should be good enough and consistent enough to race and finish in the back end of the Top 10.

Paul Menard -
Menard is carrying on the strong and proud tradition of Wood Brothers Racing in his first season with the No. 21 team. He enters this weekend's action with three Top 10s on the season and sitting a respectable 18th in the overall driver standings. Menard has been at his best so far in 2018 on the cookie cutter ovals. Two of those three Top-10 finishes have come on 1.5-mile tracks, with his most recent being a strong sixth-place finish at Kansas Speedway a couple weeks ago. Menard's career work at Charlotte isn't that eye-catching, but he did finish 13th in this event one year ago with his former team. It could be argued that the No. 21 team is a step up in quality and speed, so the results should show this Sunday night.

Daniel Suarez -
The driver of the No. 19 Toyota was one of the surprise performers in last Saturday night's All-Star Race. Suarez led 18 laps and won stage 2 of the Monster Energy Open and transferred into the All-Star Race. The young driver then went on to battle with the best in NASCAR on that big stage and grab the impressive runner-up finish in the All-Star Race. Suarez loves racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His 11th- and sixth-place finishes at this oval during his rookie season last year are clear evidence of that fact. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster makes a great fantasy racing play in weekly lineup leagues and daily fantasy racing formats. He won't disappoint in the Coca-Cola 600.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

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 1,930-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. However, Johnson's current level of performance on these style ovals goes beyond explanation. 12th-place (Las Vegas) is the best he's managed, and he has two finishes outside the Top 20. Johnson's 19th-place finish at Kansas recently, and lackluster All-Star weekend are major warning signs entering the Coca-Cola 600.

William Byron -
This will be Byron's first Charlotte Motor Speedway start, and first start in a race as long as the Coca-Cola 600. Neither of those facts bode well for the young driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Byron has yet to figure out these intermediate ovals this season with only one Top 10 in four starts and a 22.0 average finish. The young driver has been surprises left in him this season, and he has a great career ahead of him. However, this weekend is not the time to roll the dice on the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Byron is a driver best left on the bench until he figures things out and heats up later this season.

Matt Kenseth -
We had high expectations for Kenseth when he made his season debut at Kansas Speedway a couple weeks ago. However, the problems within the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing team go further than most anyone expected. The veteran driver struggled in qualifying (35th), raced at the back of the field most of the evening, and was rolled up in a late-race accident to finish 36th. After grabbing the pole position for All-Star weekend, we had our hopes boosted a bit, but sadly Kenseth failed to deliver in the All-Star Race finishing 14th in that 21-car field. We understand that the veteran driver is a two-time Charlotte winner with 20 Top-10 finishes to his credit, but this team situation is just way too shaky to rely on in this important race.

Kasey Kahne -
It would be too easy to look at Kahne's stellar career resume at Charlotte Motor Speedway and be persuaded into a fantasy racing start this weekend. His four-career victories and 15 Top-10 finishes place him among the all-time greats racing at the Charlotte oval. However, his intermediate oval performances this year with his new race team fall well below career levels, and below expectations. Kahne has only two Top 20s in four starts this season on ovals of 1.5-mile length and a 22.2 average finish. Those are marks well above his 54-percent Top-10 rate and 13.4 average finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This weekend's Coca-Cola 600 won't likely revive the driver of old at this facility.

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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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