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 comes to North Carolina and returns to intermediate oval racing.  On the heels of last weekend's inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas, we visit 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 NASCAR 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.

Last

This weekend NASCAR comes to North Carolina and returns to intermediate oval racing.  On the heels of last weekend's inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas, we visit 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 NASCAR 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.

Last week's race in the rain at COTA did little to prepare the teams for the Coca-Cola 600.  Traditionally, the All-Star Race at Charlotte precedes the 600 and gives the teams and drivers some good preparation for what's to come on NASCAR's longest evening.  However, the drivers won't have that luxury this weekend and will have to adapt on the fly.  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.  Some rare practice and qualifying laps this weekend will help to temper this factor some for the 600, but the race is so long that the track is never the same from a handling standpoint at 6 PM vs. 10 PM.     

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.    The long green flag runs and pit strategy we'll see in the Coca-Cola 600 cannot be replicated in any other race.  For this event, 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 15 years or 30 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch13.51,4398251,4498,444105.9
Chase Elliott13.13821752242,04496.5
Denny Hamlin12.51,2084393777,69295.0
Martin Truex Jr.13.71,1445651,0597,01892.0
Kevin Harvick14.11,2134886037,06390.8
Joey Logano12.39861793314,84690.3
Kurt Busch16.91,2123246267,02188.5
Brad Keselowski13.68952703164,64087.9
Tyler Reddick11.51064055887.8
Kyle Larson18.9426142202,28386.8
Ryan Blaney19.53935142,21686.7
William Byron20.3184224290383.2
Austin Dillon17.04995192,82181.7
Ryan Newman17.7995901415,21277.2
Christopher Bell15.5842032277.1
Aric Almirola17.94883942,34073.8
Erik Jones20.22515201,06773.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.17.55013631,98672.6
Alex Bowman25.22461012231,22369.2
Daniel Suarez17.822825074967.6

Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota teams have each won in the last three events at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  The track that bowtie teams dominated for years has become a venue of parity the last few seasons.  With Chase Elliott's victory for the Chevrolet camp in last May's Alsco Uniforms 500, we'll see if CMS is tilting toward Chevrolet this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600.  Ford driver, Brad Keselowski, won this event one year ago.  He ran a smart and strategy-based race, led 21 laps and took the checkered flag at the end of 600 miles.  Martin Truex's Jr.'s victory in the 2019 installment of the Coca-Cola 600 was Toyota's last victory at the Charlotte oval.  If this manufacturer hopes to climb back over both Ford and Chevrolet, the burden will largely fall on Truex and his No. 19 Toyota team. 

Considering what we've seen to this point in 2021 on the cookie cutter ovals the two best-positioned drivers to win this Sunday night could be Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.  The two Kyles have each racked up a win on the 1.5-mile tracks and led a combined 529 laps on these ovals this season.  When all the variables are considered we could be looking at a new victor at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend.  With so many young talents now in the NASCAR Cup Series, we could easily see a first-time Charlotte winner in the Coca-Cola 600.  We'll outline below the drivers you need to stock up on to dominate your fantasy racing leagues at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex has been the most impressive driver in 2021 on the intermediate ovals of the series.  He has 203 laps led, one victory and four Top-10 finishes in the four events to-date.  Charlotte Motor Speedway has held a lot of success for the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team since the 2016 season.  In that time Truex has collected three wins, one runner-up finish and five Top-5 finishes at the North Carolina oval.  He's now led over 1,000 laps for his career at CMS and usually brings strong cars each time the Cup Series visits Charlotte.  Truex led 87 laps but was held out of victory lane, finishing sixth-place in last season's Coca-Cola 600, so you know he'll be hungry to win this Sunday night.    

Kyle Larson – The Hendrick Motorsports star is riding a three-race runner-up finish streak into Charlotte this weekend after his strong second-place finish last Sunday at Circuit of the Americas.  The return to intermediate ovals should favor Larson very well in his pursuit to win his second race of the season.  He's led 509 total laps on these style ovals in 2021 and has one victory, one runner-up finish and three Top 5's in the four events so far.  Larson has never won in 11 prior starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this season is a game-changing year for this veteran driver.  Right now the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet is stride-for-stride as strong as Truex on these size ovals.      

Kyle Busch – The Joe Gibbs Racing star has had a bit of a rejuvenation in 2021 on the intermediate ovals.  Busch has been zeroed in this season, winning last time out at Kansas Speedway and nabbing three Top-5 finishes in the four races to this point.  Busch has led well over 1,400 career laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 44-percent rate.  He finished an impressive fourth-place in this event one year ago and really seems to like the 600-mile format at this track.  It's a good preview of what to expect this Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600.  With three Top-5 finishes in his last four Charlotte starts, Busch is cracking the Top 5 at a whopping 75-percent rate recently.       

Chase Elliott – The No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports team got their first win of the season in last weekend's rain-soaked Circuit of the Americas race.  That could be the boost that Elliott needs to turn things up a notch.  He was winless for the 2021 season until last Sunday's feat, so now he can relax and just focus on racing.  Elliott has been razor sharp the last few seasons at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  He has one victory and three Top-5 finishes in his last four visits to the North Carolina oval.  Over that span he's led a respectable 109 combined laps.  Those efforts have boosted Elliott's career Top-5 rate at Charlotte to a strong 44-percent.  It seems that no matter how this driver and team are performing on the cookie cutter tracks, they always seem to bring their best to Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

William Byron – This will be Byron's fifth-career start at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and while he has just one Top-10 finish in his four prior efforts, we believe he'll be a driver to "click" this weekend.  The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been razor sharp on the intermediate ovals this season and he's really stepped his game up in general in 2021.  Byron has 129 laps led, one win and four Top-10 finishes in the four intermediate oval races to-date.  That makes him one of the more impressive performers on these style tracks to this point.  Byron finished a subpar 20th in last season's Coca-Cola 600, and we're willing to bet he'll turn in a career-best Charlotte finish this Sunday night.

Denny Hamlin – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is still winless to this point in the season, but he's been pretty consistent on these cookie cutter style ovals.  Hamlin has earned finishes of 11th-, fourth-, fourth- and 12th-place between tracks like Homestead, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Kansas.  He's led an 81-combined laps in those events, so he's not been just following the leader.  The 7.8 average finish across the span speaks to Hamlin's consistency on these tracks.  As for Charlotte Motor Speedway, Hamlin has earned robust 62-percent career Top-10 rate at the track (18 of 29) and has Top-5 finishes in four of his last six starts (67-percent).  In his last start at the oval last season, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota finished runner-up to Chase Elliott in the Alsco Uniforms 500.    

Kevin Harvick Harvick is a three-time Charlotte winner, and he's led over 600 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.  The No. 4 Ford team has yet to display the winning touch on the intermediate ovals this season, but Harvick has nabbed two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the four events to-date.  Last time out he collected a runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway in early-May.  Harvick cracks the Top 10 at CMS at a steady 50-percent rate, and he's riding a three-race Charlotte Top-10 streak into this weekend's activities.  Deploy Harvick in your fantasy racing lineups with high confidence and high expectations. 

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski has struggled with some inconsistency of late, but he should shake that off for the Coca-Cola 600.  Intermediate ovals have been a sweet spot for the No. 2 Ford team this season with two Top-5 finishes in four races, including most recently a strong third-place finish at Kansas Speedway.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2013 and 2020) and he has three Top 10's in his last four starts at the North Carolina oval coming into this weekend's action.  Keselowski knows how to navigate this track, and the longer race distance plays to his strengths as a driver.  We expect the No. 2 Penske Racing team to look like their usual selves this weekend.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Charlotte & solid upside

Ryan Blaney – Blaney's season on the intermediate ovals has been a bit of an up-and-down affair, so we've slid him into the sleepers list this week.  However, the highs have been quite high.  The driver of the No. 12 Ford Mustang won at Atlanta earlier this season and finished inside the Top 5 at Las Vegas.  While the Homestead and Kansas outings were forgettable, we have to respect the upside with this driver and team selection.  For his career at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it's taken some time to adjust to the track.  But recent outings have been dramatically improved.  Blaney grabbed a pair of third-place finishes in last season's doubleheader week at Charlotte.  Those are his career-best performances at CMS to-date.   

Alex Bowman – The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is another driver that has some wide swings on the intermediate ovals this year.  Generally, though, this style tracks have been the best of his seven-season career.  Bowman has grabbed a pair of Top 10's in four outings on the 1.5-mile ovals in 2021, and more noteworthy is that he's led a combined 223 laps in those events.  Finishing consistently each time out has been the one shortfall.  However, the speed and ability is there to surprisingly sweep into victory lane and spoil the bigger names this weekend.  Bowman led 223 combined laps in his two Charlotte outings last season, but couldn't register a Top-10 finish in either effort.  That's the risk side of his driver selection this week.    

Tyler Reddick Reddick is a budding star in the making in the NASCAR Cup Series.  His intermediate oval production in 2021 has had some highs, but also some lows.  Reddick produced a brilliant runner-up finish at Homestead earlier in the season and more recently grabbed a strong seventh-place at Kansas.  The average finish across the four intermediate oval races of this year stands at a respectable 14.3.  Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted him for his first two-career starts at this track in 2020.  Those wound up being impressive eighth- and 14th-place finishes in the No. 8 RCR Chevrolet.  Reddick is no world-beater for sure, but if you're looking for a driver to safely crack the Top 15 and possibly move up into the Top 10, he's your guy. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The last four seasons have seen Stenhouse come to life at this particular track.  The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has two Top-5, three Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes in his last six Charlotte starts.  That stretch has been easily the best of his 11-season career in the NASCAR Cup Series.  Stenhouse's average finish across this recent span of races is a blistering 11.8.  That's well-better than the 17.4 career average finish that he has at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has three Top-15 finishes in four starts on the cookie cutter ovals this season, so there's no reason to believe Stenhouse won't be sharp and fast for the Coca-Cola 600.

Austin Dillon – With finishes of 12th-, 12th-, sixth- and 10th-place on intermediate ovals this season, Dillon has been a steady performer on these style tracks.  The driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has shown good speed at these similar facilities in 2021 and that shouldn't end at Charlotte.  Dillon is the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 winner and he grabbed finishes of 14th- and eighth-place at this oval last season.  Charlotte Motor Speedway has really been a track of great accomplishments for this veteran driver the last few seasons.  Dillon survived the rain-soaked COTA last Sunday with a reasonable 12th-place finish.  He'll surely be looking forward to another crack at the Coca-Cola 600.

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 Roush Fenway Racing veteran has finishes of 19th-, 14th-, seventh- and eighth-place on the four similar sized ovals this season.  Buescher has shown good speed in his last three Charlotte Motor Speedway starts with a pair of Top-10 finishes and one 22nd-place finish.  The 12.7 average finish across the three-race span is very impressive.  The No. 17 Ford team has been giving Buescher good cars this year on the intermediate ovals, and the veteran driver seems to really like racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star has been more miss than hit on intermediate ovals this season.  With finishes of 25th-, ninth-, 15th- and 17th-place thus far, there's a lot of work to do in the No. 22 Penske Racing team.  His Charlotte resume is pretty good to this point in his career with one win and a 50-percent Top-10 rate (11 of 22), however, we caution against fantasy racing deployment this week.  It would seem given his recent level of performance on these style tracks, Logano is probably pegged for a middle-teens finish in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.  This driver comes at way to high a tier and price tag in weekly lineup leagues to get that type of return.  Keep Logano on the bench until he and his team can show some improvement on the intermediate ovals.   

Aric Almirola – The driver of the No. 10 Ford has been lost in the high weeds on the cookie cutter ovals in 2021.  In fact, the entire campaign to this point has been completely disappointing for Almirola.  20th-place is the best finish the veteran driver has been able to muster on the 1.5-mile tracks this season.  Charlotte Motor Speedway has yielded just one Top-10 finish in 15-career starts for this driver, for a lowly 7-percent Top-10 rate.  Last season's 15th- and 20th-place Charlotte finishes is pretty emblematic of his career experience at this oval.  We suggest looking for your fantasy racing help for the Coca-Cola 600 elsewhere.      

Cole Custer – After 14 races we can dismiss the "slow start" tag for Custer and bring out the full blown slump label.  Last season's rookie of the year is certainly mired in a major sophomore slump in 2021.  Custer has only managed two Top-10 finishes to this point and is a distant 27th-place in the championship point standings entering Charlotte.  Last Sunday's scary crash at COTA is just the latest in a line of disappointments.  Intermediate ovals have been tough for the No. 41 Ford team this season.  Finishes of 23rd-, 25th-, 18th- and 24th-place just don't measure up to the expectations for this driver and team.  Custer registered reasonably good 12th- and 18th-place finishes at Charlotte last season, but we're not expecting that to happen this Sunday evening. 

Bubba Wallace – In four-career Cup Series starts Charlotte Motor Speedway has put the hurt on Wallace.  Finishes of 16th-, 25th-, 38th- and 37th-place have been the body of work so far.  The move to the new race team in 2021 has yet to yield a Top-10 finish through 14 events.  Intermediate ovals in 2021 have resulted in 22nd-, 28th-, 16th- and 26th-place finishes for the driver of the No. 23 Toyota.  Coming off the brutal crash and DNF at COTA this past Sunday, it's ambitious to expect Wallace and the No. 23 team to rebound at one of his tougher intermediate ovals.  A low-to-mid 20's finish seems the most likely scenario and outcome for Wallace. 

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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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