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Bank of America 500 Preview: Halfway to the Title

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 mid-point in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This weekend's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway is race number five of 10 in the post-season format which crowns the Sprint Cup champion. This will be the third intermediate oval event in the Chase and we should be able to examine the results at Kansas and Chicago for a good indicator of what could happen on Saturday. Even more applicable could be the results from the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in early September. Since the oval at Atlanta has higher banking than Kansas and Chicago, the performances there could even more closely mirror what could happen this weekend at Charlotte. Jeff Gordon marched into victory lane for the third time this season at Atlanta with a very impressive performance. He held off teammate Jimmie Johnson that Monday evening in the 500-mile event at AMS. Considering that the No. 24 team is struggling right now, Gordon may be a stretch to win this weekend. However, with his teammate Johnson fresh off a dominant victory at Kansas, the focus has likely shifted to the other Hendrick Motorports star. With a sixth championship weighing in the balance, the chances are pretty good that Johnson will be the Hendrick driver to beat this weekend in the Bank of America 500.

Even though the intermediate oval at 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 track in Charlotte. Here are the loop stats for the last 13 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson12.16764285493,917112.8
Kyle Busch15.36583626273,601106.5
Joey Logano7.43273431,16496.5
Kasey Kahne12.85423494992,70294.5
Matt Kenseth16.85502172422,89292.1
Mark Martin15.750173353,19789.7
Jeff Gordon19.24561642812,57388.3
Greg Biffle16.8486154942,71487.4
Denny Hamlin16.64731181102,78687.2
Jeff Burton14.253794782,84487.1
Carl Edwards13.347999972,44586.1
Brian Vickers21.22851933321,65685.7
Kurt Busch20.94501714432,48785.1
Tony Stewart17.84591471872,38282.2
David Reutimann14.73366591,73480.2
Clint Bowyer17.438347861,91878.9
Jamie McMurray19.93821281261,91878.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.22.64041351261,96277.8
David Ragan19.936139111,63876.3
Ryan Newman20.9323521301,94474.8

Rick Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing have each had quite a bit of success at CMS the last few seasons. These three Chevrolet stables have accounted for four of the last six victories at the 1.5-mile oval in North Carolina. It was the Kevin Harvick show in the Coca-Cola 600 in May of this year. He took the lead on the last lap as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s gas tank ran dry while in the lead. That was one of the wilder finishes in recent memory of the Coca-Cola 600. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle dominated much of that event with their powerful Fords. These three drivers led a combined 214 of the 402 laps. But it was the good fuel mileage and sound pit strategy of the Chevy camps that ended up winning the night at CMS. Certainly fuel mileage and pit strategy have been a resounding theme this season. More than one event has been decided by fuel mileage in 2012, and it seems that it has almost become a weekly factor no matter where NASCAR is racing. Who will win on Saturday in the Bank of America 500? Will Childress get Harvick or another driver back to victory lane? Or will rival Chevrolet drivers Gordon and Johnson surprise and take a trip to winner's circle? Will Kasey Kahne have one last hurrah in victory lane with Red Bull Racing before heading to Hendrick Motorsports next season? Will championship contender Tony Stewart continue his red hot Chase performance? 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 stay alive in the championship picture, 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 (17th), his recent wins to start the Chase for the Cup show the strength of this driver and team. Considering that one of those two wins came at the intermediate oval in Chicago, you can see the reason for our optimism. 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 the championship. It will take a couple wins in the 10-race Chase to make that happen. Although the vast majority of his success came earlier in his career at this intermediate oval, the No. 48 team has won as recently as 2009 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson has led close to 1,400 laps at this speedway during his career, so that experience will come in handy for the Bank of America 500.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards returns to the scene of his mediocre 16th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 this May. But fear not. With the championship well in reach, the star driver of the No. 99 Ford should be in top form this weekend. Surprisingly, Edwards has never won in his 13 career visits to Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he's been very close. He led a career-best 61 laps in this season's Coca-Cola 600, and Edwards does boast a near 54 percent Top 10 rate at this intermediate oval. With the urgency of the championship at hand, we believe Edwards will be in top form for this 500-mile contest.

Kurt Busch -
The Penske Racing veteran has visited victory lane in Charlotte only once in his 11-year NASCAR career, but it was very recent. Busch led 252 laps and totally dominated the 2010 Coca-Cola 600. He returned to Charlotte in the spring of this year and followed up that win with a brilliant fourth-place finish. Considering that the No. 22 Dodge team crossed the finish line fourth in the recent Atlanta race, you can sense where we are leading. Busch will race with the leaders and vie for the win in Saturday's 500-mile event at Charlotte.

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

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth continues to hang around in the championship picture. He enters this event ranked fifth in the Chase Standings and still well within shooting distance of the championship. Kenseth comes to a good venue for him and the No. 17 team this Saturday. Charlotte Motor Speedway has yielded one victory and 12 Top-10 finishes to Roush Fenway Racing star over the years. Kenseth led a career-best 103 laps in this season's Coca-Cola 600, and he'll certainly be racing with the leaders yet again this Saturday at CMS.

Jeff Gordon -
Only Mark Martin and Bill Elliott have more Top 10's among active drivers at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gordon is also a five-time winner at the North Carolina oval, and as recently as 2007. Intermediate ovals have been excellent venues for the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team in the last few seasons. The last of Gordon's three victories this season came a few weeks ago at the similar oval in Atlanta. The only thing that is keeping Gordon out of the contenders list this week is his recent struggles. Those are to be taken note of with this fantasy racing selection.

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has his eye on the prize, and that is the 2011 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 Harvick reversed that trend with his first career win at the oval in May of this year. While expecting him to sweep CMS this week is a bit ambitious, the veteran driver shouldn't be too far off the point after 500 miles of racing. Harvick has already posted Top 10's at Chicago and Kansas to start the Chase, so he should stay on a roll this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
The fresh face in the Chase is having a good post-season so far. Keselowski has posted Top-5 finishes in three of the four races to date. The Penske Racing phenom should continue that great production with a great effort in this Saturday's Bank of America 500. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte Motor Speedway it was Keselowski who won the pole position. He finished a sub-par 19th in the Coca-Cola 600, but we have much higher expectations for this driver and team this Saturday evening at Charlotte.

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

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have figured something out about Charlotte in the last few years. The Red Bull Racing star won three races at CMS between 2006 and 2008. Over Kahne's 15 career starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway he's led well over 700 laps at this intermediate oval. The driver of the No. 4 Toyota enters this event on a roll. Kahne has posted a pair of Top 5's in the last two races and the team is surging coming to the oval in Charlotte. He should post a Top 10 finish and possibly be an outside contender to win in the Bank of America 500.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been trying desperately to stay alive in the championship chase. While winning this season's championship isn't very likely, the urgency to finish well and race with the leaders is clearly present. Busch's crash and DNF in this season's Coca-Cola 600 snapped an amazing seven-race Top-10 streak at the North Carolina oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star hasn't been in race-winning form since the Chase began, but he's been in the outer edge of Top 10 form and we expect that to hold true this weekend.

Clint Bowyer -
Since resolving his contract status for 2012, Bowyer has been on an absolute tear. The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet has posted Top 10's in three of the first four Chase races, and he rides that wave of momentum to Charlotte, North Carolina this Saturday night. Bowyer has two Top 10's in his last four trips to the 1.5-mile oval, so that's an encouraging stat for the Richard Childress driver entering this event. At a bare minimum the veteran driver should be a Top-15 finisher in the Bank of America 500 at CMS.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Intermediate ovals have been great venues for the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 team this season. The best evidence of this is Allmendinger's career best finish in the Coca-Cola 600 in May. He raced with the leaders the entire event and brought home a stellar fifth-place finish after 600 long miles at Charlotte. Allmendinger may not be up to the task of cracking the Top 5 this weekend, but he should be pretty steady in the Bank of America 500. He finished 10th at the similar oval in Atlanta a few weeks ago, and that should be a good gage of his potential for this 500-mile event.

David Ragan -
With the Silly Season talk heating up around the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team, it would seem that Ragan is auditioning for a job in 2012 right now. Speculation is that Roush will close Ragan's team at the end of the season, and that leaves him a free agent for the upcoming campaign. Ragan won't lack for motivation to perform at Charlotte. He has three career Top 10's at CMS, with two of those coming in the last two races there. The driver of the No. 6 Ford may not be up to the task of equaling his runner-up finish here in May, but he should be in good form for this race.

Paul Menard -
Looking for a deep sleeper this weekend? Look no further than Menard in your weekly lineup games. The Richard Childress Racing driver has been rediscovering his mo-jo of late. Menard's last four efforts have netted a pair of Top 20's at Chicago and Loudon to start the Chase and 16th- and 12th-place finishes the last two weeks at Dover and Kansas. These performances are what we've come to expect from the No. 27 team at these ovals. Menard should carry this momentum to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
We normally expect big things for this driver and team when the Chase rolls around, but that hasn't been the case this season. Hamlin's year-end has become a throwaway experiment and he's far from the star that we expect during championship time. Hamlin hasn't cracked the Top 15 in his first four Chase races, and prospects look dim for a reversal this weekend. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has only a 16.6 career average finish at this oval, so prospects are not good for the Bank of America 500.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex hasn't been on his game the last few weeks. Michael Waltrip Racing in general has been poor for most of the season. The driver of the No. 56 Toyota has finished outside the Top 30 each of the last two weeks, and even after winning the pole position at Dover recently. Truex has only two Top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His last effort at the North Carolina oval yielded a disappointing 26th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

Joey Logano -
Another struggling driver right now is Logano and his No. 20 Toyota team. We're not quite sure what happened to the promising youngster, but he's hit a really deep skid. Logano's been locked out of the Top 10 for the last eight straight races, with no signs of improvement in sight. Normally the Joe Gibbs Racing driver makes a good fantasy racing play at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Logano has four Top 10's in five career starts at the intermediate oval. However, we believe his recent 24th-place finish at Atlanta will be more representative of what to expect this weekend.

David Reutimann -
Much like his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Truex Jr., Reutimann has had just incredible struggles this season. Entering this race the driver of the No. 00 Toyota has only two Top-10 finishes in 30 races this season. Things have not improved during the Chase for the Cup either. Reutimann is fresh off a disastrous 35th-place finish at Kansas Speedway this past week. Despite finishing in the Top 10 in his last three Charlotte starts, we have to caution against starting Reutimann this week in the Bank of America 500.