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 comes to the intermediate oval in Charlotte. On the heels of this past weekend's All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro, 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.

This weekend NASCAR stays in North Carolina and comes to the intermediate oval in Charlotte. On the heels of this past weekend's All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro, 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.

This past week's unique All-Star Race at the 5/8-mile North Wilkesboro Speedway did little to prepare the teams for the Coca-Cola 600. While it was racing under the lights, the similarities end there. The 200 laps, short track and segments of the All-Star Race won't resemble most of the action we'll see at Charlotte this weekend. 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 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 17 years or 32 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch12.81,6058781,4869,121105.8
Chase Elliott13.94742403322,63098.6
Tyler Reddick9.530041251,29397.1
Denny Hamlin12.01,3884433958,41895.6
Kyle Larson16.85362333982,95392.0
Martin Truex Jr.14.11,2795681,0597,60691.1
Kevin Harvick13.61,3615126037,67190.6
Joey Logano12.81,1381863405,48389.5
William Byron19.529977621,47787.2
Brad Keselowski14.29432783224,87685.3
Ryan Blaney19.84776282,57684.3
Austin Dillon16.667175103,45882.1
Chase Briscoe13.58820233181.5
Christopher Bell15.023632370079.3
Erik Jones18.94177001,53073.7
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.16.66735032,57973.7
Daniel Suarez18.437683361,14773.1
Alex Bowman22.04021222281,83673.0
Aric Almirola18.15623942,53471.6
AJ Allmendinger22.2434101111,60666.6

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 the last few seasons. With Denny Hamlin's victory in this event one year ago, we'll see if CMS is tilting toward Toyota this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600. Chevrolet driver, Kyle Larson, won this event two years ago. He ran a smart and strategy-based race, led a race-high 327 laps and took the checkered flag at the end of 600 miles. Brad Keselowski's victory in the 2020 pandemic year was Ford's last victory at the Charlotte oval. If this manufacturer hopes to climb back over both Toyota and Chevrolet, the burden will largely fall on Joey Logano and his No. 22 Ford team. 

Considering what we've seen to this point in 2023 on the cookie cutter ovals the two best-positioned drivers to win this Sunday night could be William Byron and Kyle Larson. These two drivers have led a combined 565 laps and registered a combined five Top-5 finishes in the last four 1.5-mile oval events. 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

Kyle Larson – The Hendrick Motorsports star is coming off an impressive victory in the All-Star Race and is riding great momentum into Memorial Day weekend. The return to Charlotte Motor Speedway should favor Larson very well in his pursuit to win his third race of the season. He's led 148 total laps on these style ovals in 2023 and has two runner-up finishes so far. One coming at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the other more recently at Kansas Speedway. Larson is a one-time Charlotte winner (2021), and he's led close to 400 laps in just his last two starts at the facility. Given his current hot streak and his excellence on 1.5-mile ovals this season, Larson will be the man to beat in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex is a three-time Charlotte winner since 2016 and he's led well over 1,000 career laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The recent performance surge for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota at Charlotte Motor Speedway has brought up his Top-10 rate at the track to 42-percent and lowered his average finish to a very sound 14.1. The intermediate ovals have been kind to Truex this season with 82 laps led and seventh- and eighth-place finishes at Las Vegas and Kansas. Prior to the All-Star break, the veteran driver won the pole and led 145 laps at Darlington before being involved in an unfortunate crash. This driver and team were surging before the break at North Wilkesboro this past weekend, and we believe Truex will pick up where he left off this weekend at Charlotte.       

Ross Chastain – With a fifth-place finish recently at Kansas Speedway, Chastain served notice he is ready to challenge for wins again on these cookie cutter ovals. His near-brush with victory lane at Darlington before the All-Star break certainly did nothing to diminish that notion either. While Charlotte Motor Speedway hasn't held career-long success for the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet, his 153 laps led and Top-15 finish in this event one year ago got our attention. That was his career-best Charlotte performance to this point, but we believe much better is still ahead. Considering how well the Trackhouse Racing driver has performed on intermediate ovals this season and how he was racing prior to the All-Star break, we believe Chastain could make a big splash in the Coca-Cola 600.

William Byron – This will be Byron's seventh-career start at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and while he has just two Top-10 finishes in his five prior efforts, we believe he'll be a driver to "click" this weekend. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is a two-time pole winner at Charlotte, and has led 61 combined laps to this point. The cookie cutter tracks have held some recent success for this driver and team. Byron posted a dominant win at Las Vegas earlier this season, and he won the pole and led 10 laps en route to an impressive third-place finish at Kansas Speedway recently. The extra 100-miles of racing will be a test of Byron's endurance for sure, but we believe he can measure up and challenge for his first-ever Charlotte win.

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

Chase Elliott – The No. 9 Chevrolet team has been quite a performer at the Charlotte oval in recent races. Elliott has one win and three runner-up finishes at this track in his last seven starts. With over 150 laps led in his last four Charlotte races, he's quite used to racing up front here. These recent performances have lowered his average finish to 13.8 at the Charlotte oval. Elliott cracks the Top 10 at a stellar 55-percent rate at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Due to his early-season leg injury, the Hendrick Motorsports star has just one start on an intermediate oval this season. Fortunately, that was a strong seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway just a few weeks ago.    

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has been a steady performer this season on the cookie cutter ovals. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has finishes of 11th-, sixth- and first-place at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Kansas. The trend line has definitely been improving and Hamlin has been gathering steam. The veteran driver has 20 Top 10's at Charlotte in 34-career starts for a stellar 65-percent rate. Hamlin won this event one year ago and extended his current Top-10 streak at the Charlotte oval to three races. With the Joe Gibbs Racing star seemingly turning his season around, this could be a very timely visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway.    

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star has been strong in his last two intermediate oval starts. With a win at Atlanta and sixth-place finish at Kansas Speedway, the No. 22 Ford team have been razor sharp on these similar-sized ovals. Logano is a one-time Charlotte winner (2015) and he cracks the Top 10 here at a respectable 46-percent rate. Logano is coming off a subpar 18th-place finish at Darlington before the All-Star break and looking to rebound to Top-10 form. Charlotte Motor Speedway provides a great opportunity for this veteran driver and team to get back to their Top 10 ways in the Coca-Cola 600 this Sunday night.

Bubba Wallace – Wallace has been on a bit of a heater of late. He registered fourth- and fifth-place finishes at Kansas and Darlington before the All-Star break. Wallace also drove to an impressive runner-up finish on All-Star evening at North Wilkesboro this past weekend. The 23XI Racing driver rides that momentum into Charlotte this week for the annual Memorial Day weekend battle. Wallace's six previous starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway have only netted one Top-15 finish. However, he's been pretty sharp on intermediate ovals this season with a pair of fourth-place finishes at Las Vegas and Kansas. We're willing to bet a career-best Charlotte finish awaits Wallace this Sunday evening.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Charlotte & solid upside

Kyle Busch – The Richard Childress Racing star has struggled a bit since his Talladega victory a few weeks ago, but he showed some hope with his seventh-place finish at Darlington before the All-Star break. Busch has led close to 1,500 career laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he cracks the Top 5 at a strong 47-percent rate. He finished an impressive runner-up 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 five Top-5 finishes in his last six Charlotte starts, Busch is cracking the Top 5 at a whopping 83-percent rate recently.      

Ryan Blaney – Blaney has been one of the most consistent drivers of the last month. He's nabbed two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the last five events, although he's not led a lot of laps. Consistency has been more the hallmark of the No. 12 Ford team of late. Blaney's intermediate oval experiences have been a bit of a mixed bag this season, although he did manage a strong seventh-place finish at Atlanta a few weeks ago. Charlotte Motor Speedway has yielded just three Top-10 finishes to the Penske Racing driver during his career, but two of those have come in his last four starts. Blaney is not a practical threat to win at this oval, considering his current level of performance, but he should be relied on to fetch a possible Top 10.     

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 ninth- and 11th-place finishes at Las Vegas and Kansas. Before the All-Star break, Harvick and the No. 4 Ford team stormed to a runner-up finish at Darlington Raceway. It would seem they are heating up as we head into the summer portion of the Cup Series schedule. Harvick rides a five-race Charlotte Top-10 streak into this weekend's action and historically he cracks the Top 10 here at a respectable 53-percent rate.

Brad Keselowski – The two-time Charlotte winner has been racing well recently. Keselowski has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his last four events leading into the All-Star break. The owner/driver of the No. 6 Ford has 10-career Top-10 finishes on the Charlotte oval spread across 23 starts. That works out to a reasonable 44-percent Top-10 rate and respectable 14.2 average finish. Keselowski typically finishes these 600-mile marathons and often finishes them on the lead lap. While this driver and team are a minimal threat to win Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, Keselowski could easily be a face among the Top 10 when the checkered flag waves at the end of the evening. 

Tyler Reddick – Reddick has four-career Cup Series starts on the Charlotte oval, and he's managed an impressive three Top 10's in those four efforts. In this event one year ago for former boss, Richard Childress, Reddick collected a steady sixth-place finish in last season's Coca-Cola 600. The driver of the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing has been coming on strong of late with Top-10 finishes in two of his last three starts. One of those was a steady ninth-place finish at the similar sized oval of Kansas Speedway. With finishes of 15th-, fifth- and ninth-place on 1.5-mile ovals this season, Reddick has been consistent and strong on the intermediate tracks. A good performance in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 seems fairly certain.   

Chris Buescher – In the deep sleeper category we offer Buescher for examination this week.  After a slow start to the 2023 season, he's seemingly turned things around for the No. 17 Ford team of late. Buescher has grabbed three Top-10 finishes over the last five events leading into All-Star weekend and posted a brilliant 10.6 average finish across the span. The pop in performance has been on all forms of tracks, including mid-sized ovals. Buescher has been reasonably good at Charlotte Motor Speedway over his career, but he's been his best in more recent performances. Three of his last five visits to the oval in Charlotte have yielded Top-10 finishes. A lot of this success has happened since Buescher's move from JTG Daugherty Racing to his current Roush Fenway Keselowski team.   

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Alex Bowman – Bowman returns from a three-race absence for a broken vertebrae sustained in a sprint car accident in late April. This weekend he's received medical clearance and will once again pilot the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet. Even before his accident and injury, Bowman was mired in a bit of a slump. He hasn't visited the Top 10 since Richmond and was stuck in a three-race Top-10 drought. Charlotte Motor Speedway has been a track of limited success for the veteran driver over the years. With four Top 10's in 11 starts and a less-than-inspiring 21.9 average finish, Charlotte is not one of Bowman's better tracks. Considering this is the longest race of the year at 600 miles and usually about five hours long, that's quite a challenge for a driver coming fresh off a back injury.

Austin Cindric – If you're looking for slumping drivers, look no further than Cindric and the No. 2 Ford team right now. The young driver is mired in seven-race Top-10 drought and has tumbled from 14th-place to 20th-place in the driver points during the slump. Cindric enters Memorial Day weekend struggling to find answers. Not much has gone right since his last Top 10 at COTA and tracks of all kinds have been giving this driver and team troubles. Cindric has just one-career start in the 600-mile battle at Charlotte, and it came in this event one year ago. The Penske Racing youngster would get hammered in an early-race crash and finish a distant 34th-place in this event one year ago. We recommend passing on Cindric for this long race.     

Michael McDowell – After two wonderful seasons for the veteran driver in 2021 and 2022, this season has been anything but easy. With just one Top-10 finish to this point in the campaign, McDowell has been desperately looking for a way out of his slump. He hasn't visited the Top 20 in his last four starts and has dropped from 17th- to 21st-place in the driver points over that time. Intermediate ovals have been a part of the problem this year. With finishes of 25th-, 21st- and 26th-place, McDowell is not racing up to his ability on these tracks. He collected a personal best eighth-place finish in this event one year ago, but we doubt he'll be up to that challenge in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600.

Chase Briscoe – While Briscoe has had some success this season on the superspeedway tracks and small ovals, he's been stumped by the intermediate ovals. Finishes of 28th-, 24th- and 32nd-place have been his total of work on Las Vegas, Atlanta and Kansas. Maintaining the lead lap has been a challenge and racing competitively has been a real problem for him on these 1.5-mile ovals. Briscoe has just two-career starts in the Coca-Cola 600 and they range from good to ugly, a real mixed bag so far. Given this team's current struggles, we'd recommend on passing up Briscoe for Charlotte Motor Speedway. Save his starts for upcoming short tracks during the summer and fall.   

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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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