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Bank of America 500 Preview: Midway to the Championship

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

We've reached the midway point in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This weekend's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is race No. 5 of 10 in the postseason format that crowns the Sprint Cup champion. This will be the second intermediate oval event in the Chase, and we should be able to examine the results at Kansas a couple weeks ago for a good indicator of what could happen Sunday. Even more applicable could be the results from the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway a few weeks earlier. Tony Stewart marched into victory lane for the first time this season at Atlanta with a very impressive performance. He beat out Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards that evening in the 500-mile event at AMS. The No. 14 Chevrolet team could be poised for another surprising finish this Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Stewart led 76 laps at the intermediate oval in Kansas recently, before falling back to finish fourth in the Price Chopper 400. This team's intermediate oval program is running at full speed, so the owner/driver could make a big impact this weekend in the Bank of America 500.

Even though Charlotte is similar to both Atlanta Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway in many respects, we still need to take a good look at the recent track history of Charlotte Motor Speedway. As you'll see in the table below, we do have a few drivers that struggled at Kansas, but are historically good plays at the intermediate oval in Charlotte. Here are the loop stats for the last 11 races at Charlotte.

Jimmie Johnson11.55333865343,361115.3
Kyle Busch15.05482613553,005104.9
Kasey Kahne9.74853184712,536100.4
Joey Logano9.0196202787100.2
Mark Martin14.240463262,82191.1
Jeff Gordon18.73411472552,15489.1
Matt Kenseth18.03761251382,31189.1
Jeff Burton13.145589712,45988.4
Kurt Busch21.63681614402,23587.6
Greg Biffle18.2352118432,26985.5
Tony Stewart17.53861431822,22684.5
Carl Edwards13.233764341,84584.0
Denny Hamlin18.534181852,10381.5
Ryan Newman18.6286521301,88781.3
Clint Bowyer17.728546851,58879.6
David Reutimann16.32235991,23377.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.23.53101181241,64177.4
Jamie McMurray20.129072561,54775.9
Brad Keselowski16.0425219173.2
Bobby Labonte15.427433131,25772.7

Rick Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports (formerly Gillett Evernham Motorsports) have each had quite a bit of success at CMS in recent seasons. These three stables have accounted for seven of the last nine victories at the 1.5-mile oval in North Carolina. It was the Kurt Busch show in the Coca-Cola 600 in May of this year. He led 252 of the 400 laps run and walked away with his second win of 2010. Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne both battled with the Penske Racing veteran that day, but were unable to beat the No. 2 Dodge team. Still, both these drivers have won their fair share of races at CMS in the last several years. Certainly we expect to see some different faces up front this weekend at Charlotte, but many of those teams that ran well in May's Coca-Cola 600 will be in the mix again this time around. Who will win on Sunday in the Bank of America 500? Will Hendrick get Johnson or another driver back to victory lane? Or will rival Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart surprise and take a trip to winner's circle? Will Kasey Kahne have one last hurrah in victory lane with RPM before heading to Red Bull Racing next season? We'll run down the list of contenders and others who you need to dominate your fantasy racing leagues this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Tony Stewart
Stewart is trying to climb back into championship contention, and CMS promises to be yet another potential win for the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet. He has one career victory and 11 Top-10 finishes at the 1.5-mile oval. While his outing here in May wasn't the greatest, his recent win at Atlanta and near-miss of victory lane at Kansas show the strength of this driver and team on the intermediate ovals. We expect Stewart to lead laps and factor in the outcome of this one.

Jimmie Johnson
The six-time Charlotte winner has far more than just a win in this weekend's race in mind. Johnson is focused on collecting yet another championship and rewriting NASCAR history in the process. Although the vast majority of his success came earlier in his career at this intermediate oval, the No. 48 has won as recently as this event one year ago. Johnson has led close to 1,400 laps at this oval during his career, so that experience will come in handy for the Bank of America 500.

Kasey Kahne
Kahne and the No. 9 team have figured something out about Charlotte in the last few years. The Richard Petty Motorsports star has won three races at CMS since 2006, and he has one runner-up finish in the span as well. Kahne has led 160 laps in the two Atlanta races this season, which is a very comparable intermediate oval, so you could easily expect to see him running up front and challenging for the win in this event.

Kurt Busch
The Penske Racing veteran has made a good living racing on this intermediate tracks the last few seasons. In just 2010 alone, the No. 2 Dodge team has two victories between Atlanta and Charlotte. Busch's record at Charlotte Motor Speedway has been uneven over the years with only a 25 percent Top 10 rate at the oval, but his recent success trumps these figures. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte Busch led 252 laps and walked away with the victory in the Coca Cola 600.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon
Only Mark Martin and Bill Elliott have more Top 10's among active drivers at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gordon's 20 career Top-10 finishes at CMS include five in the last six races there. Intermediate ovals have been excellent venues for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team in the last few seasons. Gordon's last visit to a 1.5-mile oval yielded 29 laps led and a fifth-place finish at Kansas. We expect similar results this weekend.

Carl Edwards
Edwards returns to the scene of his mediocre 16th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 this May. That event was illustrative of what has plagued the No. 99 team the last two seasons. However, Edwards has turned things around 180 degrees since the last visit to CMS. He's reeled of 10 Top-10 finishes in the last 12 races, and thrust himself into the championship picture. We will likely see the Edwards that cracks the Top 10 at a career 64 percent rate at Charlotte Motor Speedway this Sunday.

Kevin Harvick
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has his eye on the prize, and that is the 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship. Harvick knows he needs a great performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway to keep that dream a possibility. The No. 29 team has never really enjoyed all that much success at the 1.5-mile oval, but the circumstances dictates that a Top-10 finish is in order. Harvick recently posted a stellar third-place effort at the intermediate oval in Kansas, which is another facility he's struggled at over the years.

Greg Biffle
Biffle has never won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he has flirted with victory there on a couple of occasions. He's riding a good streak of momentum at the moment, and could show up with a race-winning car any weekend. The No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team had a very dominant car recently at Kansas, so it's not that unrealistic to expect them to unload another great, Top 10 car at Charlotte.

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

Jeff Burton
Burton is a three-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he's also had his taste of the checkers in the All-Star events at the intermediate oval. So the solid resume for success is in place for the No. 31 team. The Richard Childress Racing veteran recently cracked the Top 5 at Atlanta, and he had a potential Top 5 car at Kansas before a mysterious handling issue prevented a great finish in the Price Chopper 400. We expect Burton to challenge the Top 5 with his Chase Hopes hanging in the balance.

Kyle Busch
Busch has been trying desperately to stay alive in the championship chase. While winning this season's crown isn't very likely, the urgency to finish well will be with the Joe Gibbs Racing star every week. Busch is riding a powerful six-race Top 10 streak at Charlotte into this event, and he's led close to 300 laps at the intermediate oval during this span. The No. 18 Toyota will be fast for the Bank of America 500.

Ryan Newman
Rocket Man owns an astounding nine pole positions at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including two of the last three events. He's also grabbed a few Top-10 finishes along the way there too. Newman won the pole and finished ninth in this season's Coca-Cola 600. While we don't expect the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet to collect the win on Sunday, a Top-10 finish is well within reach.

A.J. Allmendinger
Three of the last five races have yielded Top-10 finishes for the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team. You have to use that confidence when choosing Allmendinger for your fantasy racing lineups this weekend. His last start at CMS yielded a steady Top-15 finish in the Coca Cola 600, and Allmendinger's recent Top 10 at Kansas underscores this team's performance. Certainly a safe, Top-20 finish should be in store at Charlotte.

Paul Menard
Looking for a deep sleeper this weekend? Look no further than Menard in your weekly lineup games. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been quite impressive of late. Menard's last three efforts have netted a pair of Top 10's at Dover and Kansas and a decent 22nd-place finish at Fontana last weekend. These performances are well above his norm at these ovals. Menard should press to equal the eighth-place finish he posted at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May's Coca Cola 600.

Bill Elliott
Another driver who should be happy to return to the intermediate ovals this weekend is Elliott. The Wood Brothers Racing veteran has an amazing 61 career starts at the 1.5-mile North Carolina oval. Although this team is part-time this season, Elliott has made Top-25 finishes a routine scenario at intermediate ovals this season. Top 25's at Fort Worth, Atlanta, Charlotte and Kansas speak to the consistency of the No. 21 team.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin
While Hamlin is probably the driver with the best shot of upsetting Jimmie Johnson's prolific championship string, he's not a driver to ride in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has struggled tremendously at the intermediate oval outside Charlotte. First off, Hamlin has a disappointing 30 percent career Top 10 rate at the oval. Secondly, he had a blown engine and DNF at the recent Atlanta race as well as an uninspiring 12th-place finish at Kansas. The intermediate ovals have not been kind to the No. 11 team this season.

Marcos Ambrose
We love the Aussie racing sensation, but the No. 47 team has fallen into a rut in recent weeks. Ambrose will be leaving this team for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2011, so the urgency to work on things for next season with this small race team are not in effect. Ambrose has three career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway with no finishes better than 22nd.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The process of fixing the No. 88 team is taking a lot longer than expected. Good runs are still few and far between despite the flashes of optimism from the veteran driver. While Earnhardt has some decent career stats at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the team's current state is far from stable or consistent. In short, we don't expect a Top-20 finish for Earnhardt at Charlotte. His last four trips to CMS have yielded no Top-20 finishes.

Juan Pablo Montoya
The No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team has fallen on hard times of late. Montoya has fallen outside the Top 15 in the series standings thanks to a four-race Top 10 drought. The chances for a turnaround at Charlotte Motor Speedway are pretty slim. Montoya has only one Top 10 in seven career starts at the intermediate oval, and three DNF's to add to the pessimism. The team's recent poor performance at Kansas Speedway is still fresh in our memory.