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, and with the new rules package.  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 somewhat different, the 85-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, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson, who dominated this past weekend's 85-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 two years 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 14 years or 27 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Jimmie Johnson13.41,3338811,0948,487109.6
Kyle Busch13.61,2607601,3707,662106.5
Denny Hamlin12.11,1033863567,32497.3
Kevin Harvick14.71,0064315266,25789.5
Martin Truex Jr.14.69984188566,18689.5
Kyle Larson17.5373140202,09388.5
Kurt Busch17.31,029295572.06,27588.5
Joey Logano13.18451502634,02688.2
Brad Keselowski14.47212052193,92886.3
Chase Elliott18.3173881151,16585.3
Erik Jones14.312032062181.3
Daniel Suarez10.7154220.058081.1
Austin Dillon16.3354449.02,08080.4
Clint Bowyer17.3757120119.04,29678.7
Ryan Newman17.4890871414,79678.1
Ryan Blaney25213801,34177.5
Aric Almirola18.53823441,91374.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.93222521,47669.4
Darrell Wallace Jr.1628108066.9
Paul Menard22.34966252,11766.6

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota teams have each won in the last six events at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  The track that bowtie teams dominated for years has become a venue of parity the last few seasons.  With Kyle Larson's victory for the Chevrolet camp in last Saturday's All-Star Race, we'll see if CMS is tilting toward Chevrolet this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600.  Toyota driver, Kyle Busch, won this event one year ago.  He ran a dominant race, led 377 laps and took the checkered flag at the end of 600 miles.  The new aero package should reduce the chances of that type of dominance, but we have to look to Toyota to keep their hot hand at Charlotte.  Martin Truex's victory in the October 2017 race at this same oval gives drivers from that manufacturer a two-race Charlotte win streak entering this weekend.  Given what we saw in last weekend's All-Star Race, it will be interesting to see if Toyota drivers can hold serve this Sunday night.  Busch was easily the most impressive driver of last weekend's exhibition race, so much of the burden for Toyota's success in the Coca-Cola 600 will fall on the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota team's shoulders.

As for Ford's chances, much of the burden will fall on Stewart Haas Racing and Penske Racing drivers.  Joey Logano is the last Ford winner at Charlotte, but the lead driver for this manufacturer is unmistakably Kevin Harvick.  He had plus speed in the All-Star Race, but didn't win.  He'll carry that momentum into the dramatically longer race this Sunday night.  With all that has happened with the new car rules, we're going to be in for one entertaining race with lots of lead changes.  Last season's Coca-Cola 600 produced just 9 lead changes.  We should see a number north of 25 this Sunday night, and lots of action at the front.  We'll give you the drivers you need to stock up on to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Contenders – Those 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, and coming off a runner-up finish in last weekend's All-Star Race.  The No. 4 Ford had world class speed in last weekend's racing exhibition, but Harvick somehow came away without his third All-Star win.  We should see that speed again this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600, and a driver filled with determination to make up for that second-place finish at Charlotte.  Deploy Harvick 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 won this event one year ago from the pole in a dominant performance.  He now knows the keys to victory at this challenging speedway.  Busch has one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes on the cookie cutter ovals this season with 80 total laps led.  Busch has led well over 1,300 career laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 41-percent rate.  He led 15 laps and finished third this past weekend in the All-Star Race, and was really the equal to Kevin Harvick in many respects during that race.  It's a good preview of what to expect this Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600.    

Kyle Larson The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is coming off his big win in last weekend's All-Star Race.  It was a dramatic comeback for Larson as he overtook both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch late in that 85-lap event for the convincing win.  The victory marked a great deal of progress this driver and team has made in recent weeks.  A third-place finish at Dover and eighth-place finish at Kansas in the races leading up to last weekend shows that progress.  As for Charlotte Motor Speedway, Larson is riding a two-race Charlotte Top-10 streak into this weekend.  That improvement at this oval cannot be overlooked.  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 top contenders.    

Joey Logano The Penske Racing star has been rather hit or miss on intermediate ovals this season, but Logano does boast the victory at Las Vegas earlier in the year.  His Charlotte resume is pretty strong as a point of illustration.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford won at this track in the fall of 2015 and his nine-career Top-10 finishes have raised his Top-10 rate at CMS to a steady 47-percent.  Logano should be dialed-in and ready to race after last weekend's fourth-place finish in the All-Star Race.  The bottom line is that Logano will be a top performer for the Ford camp in this 600-mile event and a strong bet to challenge for the win in the Coca-Cola 600.

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

Brad Keselowski Keselowski has had a strong season on the intermediate oval circuit.  Keselowski had a victory to start the season at Atlanta, and he finished runner-up at Las Vegas the following week.  Keselowski had some tough luck at Texas, but he rallied from that to win at the 1.5-mile oval in Kansas.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford is a one-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2013) and he has five Top 10's in his last seven 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 Ford 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 six Charlotte Top 10's in his last seven starts coming into this weekend's action.  That includes his eighth-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 perfect 100-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 his run-in with Ryan Newman and poor finish in last weekend's All-Star Race.  Bowyer is resilient and he's proven his worth on these style tracks in 2019.  He has one-career victory at the Charlotte oval and knows what it takes to win here.  With three Top-5 finishes and a runner-up finish 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.   

Aric Almirola The driver of the No. 10 Ford has been dialed-in this season on cookie cutter ovals.  Almirola sports eighth-, a pair of seventh- and a 12th-place finish on the 1.5-mile tracks this season.  His All-Star performance this past weekend netted a respectable sixth-place finish at the end of 85 laps on the Charlotte oval.  He should bring that same speed and excellence into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.  Almirola doesn't have the career resume at this track that other drivers do, but that's a result of racing for lesser teams for several years.  He has been a very dependable performer on 1.5-mile tracks since making the jump to Stewart Haas Racing last season.

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

Chase Elliott The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team is getting better on these cookie cutter ovals this season.  Elliott has led 80 laps in his last two intermediate oval races, and he finished an impressive fourth in his last start at Kansas Speedway.  He has two Top 10's in six-career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and that includes his runner-up finish in October 2017's Bank of America 500.  Elliott's track specific experience and his current level of performance beg a fantasy racing start in this 600-mile battle.  The No. 9 Chevrolet team won't be world beaters this Sunday night, but Elliott should be good enough and consistent enough to race and finish in the back end of the Top 10. 

Erik Jones The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver is on a roll this season on the 1.5-mile tracks.  Finishes of seventh-, 13th-, fourth- and third-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' fourth-career start at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend.  He finished seventh- in this event two years ago as a rookie while racing for Furniture Row Racing.  Jones clearly likes racing on this oval.  He had some tough luck last weekend in the All-Star Race but showed good speed before he crashed out.  We expect this young driver to stay hot on the cookie cutter ovals in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600. 

Alex Bowman The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet cracked the Top 10 in the All-Star Race and continued his good work in the month of May.  Prior to that performance Bowman was riding a three-race runner-up finish streak coming into All-Star weekend.  We have high expectations for the young driver in the Coca-Cola 600.  Bowman finished ninth in this race one year ago for his first-career Charlotte Top 10.  That is a good indicator to rely on, but his 63 laps led and recent runner-up finish at the similar oval in Kansas is even better.  Given the current momentum of this driver and team, it's hard to ignore the No. 88 Chevrolet team in this weekend's long Charlotte Motor Speedway race. 

Daniel Suarez With finishes of 10th-, 17th-, third- and 14th-place on intermediate ovals this season, Suarez has been a steady performer on these style ovals.  The driver of the No. 41 Stewart Haas Racing Ford showed good speed in last weekend's Open, but wrecked going for a stage win that would have transferred him into the All-Star Race.  Suarez will look to make up for that miscue in the Coca-Cola 600.  The young driver has three-career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and good results to show.  Suarez has finishes of 11th-, sixth- and 15th-place in those three starts.  This track has played well to his abilities in his brief career.  He should be in a position to challenge the Top 10 Sunday night.

William Byron This will be Byron's second-career Charlotte Motor Speedway start, and second start in a race as long as the Coca-Cola 600.  Last season's result was a crash and DNF, but this is a different and more polished driver this time around.  Byron raced his way into the All-Star Race last weekend and finished an impressive ninth in his first start in that exhibition event.  That speed should be on display again in the Coca-Cola 600.  Byron has been gradually improving this season, and his 40 laps led on the cookie cutter ovals this season are evidence of that fact.  He's qualified in the front two rows of his last two starts at 1.5-mile tracks, and boasts a sixth-place finish at Texas as a result.  The No. 24 team should be an intriguing fantasy play at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Chris Buescher In the deep sleeper category we offer Buescher for examination this week.  It's hard to overlook his results on the cookie cutter ovals this season.  The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has finishes of ninth-, 18th-, 20th- and 10th-place on the four similar sized ovals this season.  Buescher showed good speed in the Open last weekend, but ran into problems in that wild race and did not finish.  He should rebound nicely in the much more paced Coca-Cola 600.  The driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet is generally a Top-20 finisher each time he starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but we're willing to bet he'll be much better than that in Sunday's nights 600-mile classic.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. Truex is likely the highest risk driver in the field this Sunday night.  While he could prove to be a good start, recent results seem to point to troubles instead.  The No. 19 Toyota team hasn't exactly been their usual selves on intermediate ovals this season.  Two Top 10's early in the season for Truex have been offset by subpar 12th- and 19th-place finishes in more recent starts at Texas and Kansas.  The All-Star Race was a puzzling performance for this driver and team as well.  He just didn't have the speed to push up and challenge the leaders, and would labor to an uncharacteristic 10th-place finish in that 19-car field.  The stakes are too high for a letdown in this race, and that's unfortunately what we forecast for Truex.    

Ryan Blaney Blaney has suffered a mysterious power outage on the intermediate ovals this season.  While his teammates at Penske Racing, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, have raced to victories and Top-10 finishes, Blaney has labored to poor finishes despite having similar speed.  The young driver's four starts have all resulted in finishes outside the Top 20.  The start in last weekend's All-Star Race was similarly disappointing.  Blaney started ninth and finished 16th in that exhibition race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  It's going to be a tall task for this driver and team to buck their recent trend on 1.5-mile tracks this Sunday night.   

Denny Hamlin The Joe Gibbs Racing star is mired in a terrible slump right now.  Hamlin has ended his hot start to the season with a three-race Top-10 drought leading up to this weekend.  Poor handling cars and bad luck have plagued the veteran driver.  Hamlin carried that same trend into the All-Star Race.  Hamlin ran into problems, crashed and finished 18th last weekend in that exhibition race.  He'll look to rebound in the Coca-Cola 600, but the odds don't look good.  Despite a good career record of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway Hamlin's troubles could very well continue right into Sunday night's battle under the lights.

Paul Menard We're uncertain of what Menard will bring to the table this weekend, and that uncertainty indicates a good reason for caution for the No. 21 Ford team.  Menard has been uneven in his intermediate oval performances this season.  However, his most recent start was a subpar 24th-place finish at Kansas Speedway.  Menard's performance in the Open yielded a seventh-place finish in a much thinner field, but lacked the speed to indicate a good Coca-Cola 600 performance.  His Charlotte stats leave a lot to be desired as well.  With only two Top-10 finishes in 23-career starts and a 22.3 average finish, there are better choices in the field this Sunday night at the Charlotte oval.

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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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