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Coca-Cola 600 Preview: Longest Race of the Season

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.

This weekend we remain in North Carolina for our NASCAR action. On the heels of the recent Sprint All-Star Challenge, we return to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend 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 Sprint 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 speedway, 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 Challenge has given us our first look at the facility in Charlotte this season and our first look at the new Gen-6 car in action here. What transpired in that exhibition event will be a good preview of what we should see this Sunday evening. The 90-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 cool 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. We believe that this past weekend's All-Star Challenge could be the best indicator of what might happen in this weekend's Coca-Cola 600. The Busch brothers, who dominated this past weekend's 90-lap exhibition event, should show up with the same speed that they had throughout the All-Star Challenge. 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 in victory lane like it did in the All-Star race.
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 Challenge 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 prognostications. The 1.5-mile track 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 eight years or 16 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson12.88255446034,932111.7
Kyle Busch13.18334187934,565107.7
Kasey Kahne11.37294745953,72998.0
Matt Kenseth15.26993032883,54994.4
Greg Biffle15.16533004373,71694.1
Denny Hamlin14.16162001593,78092.1
Carl Edwards12.0632118983,28289.0
Joey Logano10.14083931,52088.4
Mark Martin17.662581373,86288.2
Jeff Gordon18.46011882883,21687.3
Aric Almirola14.01442364184.8
Tony Stewart17.35671872812,99883.4
Brad Keselowski15.7245701491,20183.2
Kurt Busch20.84841794432,70682.1
Jeff Burton15.6546105782,88881.6
Clint Bowyer16.4475621552,43380.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.34871461262,40178.8
Jamie McMurray20.34901331262,09777.0
Ryan Newman19.8442561362,49375.8
David Reutimann17.13376891,74375.8

Chevrolet teams have gotten the best of the competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway in for years, but there are recent signs that this is changing. Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have each won the last three races at the intermediate oval, not counting Jimmie Johnson's All-Star victory this past weekend. The track that bowtie teams dominated for years seems to be becoming a venue of parity. We'll see this weekend how much impact the new Gen-6 car has on the Charlotte status quo. Toyota driver Clint Bowyer won the last race at the North Carolina oval with his victory in last October's Bank of America 500. He out-dueled Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin to claim his first career win at Charlotte. Given the strength of MWR Toyotas this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, this will be a much anticipated event for that racing stable. Speaking of Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing ace is fresh off his full-time return to action and brilliant runner-up finish at Darlington Raceway last week. Despite the long layoff, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota could be poised to sneak into victory lane for the first time at CMS. In this event one year ago, Kasey Kahne led Chevrolet to victory lane with his thrilling and dominant performance in that Coca-Cola 600. The Hendrick Motorsports star has four Charlotte victories in his resume and three of those have come in the 600. You could say that Kahne has become sort of a specialist at this event. One thing we need to keep in mind this weekend is the potential for the All-Star / Coca-Cola 600 sweep. It has happened in the past and is not completely unheard of in the recent history of NASCAR. In 2010 former Penske Racing star Kurt Busch completed the sweep of All-Star weekend and Coca-Cola 600 weekend with his big victory in 2010s Memorial Day weekend marathon. In 2008 it was Kahne who broke out the broom at Charlotte and swept away both the All-Star and Coca-Cola 600 trophies. Could Johnson be poised to repeat that scenario this weekend? Given how he ran away from the field in the final segment of the All-Star Challenge, we would rate those odds a pretty favorable. We'll highlight all the drivers that can guide your fantasy racing teams to success this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kasey Kahne -
As a four-time winner at this track, we have to give Kahne the contender list upgrade this week. Considering that the No. 5 Chevrolet team has already posted a pair of runner-up finishes at ovals like Las Vegas and Kansas this season, you can bet they'll be on their game this Sunday night. Kahne is a three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, so there's just something intangible about his performances in this particular Charlotte event. With over 800 career laps led at this facility, we're more than familiar with seeing the Hendrick Motorsports star race among the leaders here. Kahne will do so again this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he enters this weekend as the hottest driver in the series right now. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has two victories on intermediate ovals this season (Las Vegas and Kansas), so that's proof positive that he's in top form at theses style tracks. Kenseth struggled to be relevant in this past weekend's All-Star Challenge, but that shouldn't be too concerning. If anything, the 90-lap preview gave the No. 20 team some precious testing time at CMS under race conditions. We expect Kenseth and his high-flying team to come to Charlotte prepared this Sunday evening.

Jimmie Johnson -
The Hendrick Motorsports star has amassed some impressive numbers over the years at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson leads all active drivers with six career wins at CMS, including three victories in the Coca-Cola 600. He has led a whopping 1,439 career laps at the Charlotte oval, and that statistic needs absolutely no commentary. In his last points race at CMS, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet led 53 laps and finished an impressive third in the Bank of America 500. This weekend the time could be right for the five-time champion to get back into Charlotte's victory lane and pull the Charlotte sweep in the process.

Kyle Busch -
Busch has some rather impressive loop stats at Charlotte Motor Speedway to never have tasted the thrill of victory at this facility. That's right, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has never won at this 1.5-mile track, but he's been painfully close on more than one occasion. In just his last three visits to the North Carolina speedway alone, Busch has amassed 166 laps led and he's collected finishes of second-, third- and fifth-place. With five Top-5 finishes in his last six trips to Concord, NC, the time may finally be right for Busch to get the Charlotte winless monkey off his back.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex has been one of the more consistent drivers in the series, especially on the intermediate ovals this season. He has 199 laps led and four Top-10 finishes in the last five intermediate oval events. He led 142 laps and finished second at the similar oval in Fort Worth a few weeks ago. Truex has also started building his Charlotte resume the last few seasons. He qualified sixth and finished a respectable 10th in his last race at CMS during last October's Bank of America 500. The No. 56 Toyota team won the pole for last weekend's Sprint Showdown, so you know they'll bring a fast car to the Coca-Cola 600.

Denny Hamlin -
Historically speaking, Hamlin would not appear to be a big threat to win at Charlotte this weekend. He's never won in 15 career starts at this 1.5-mile oval, however, he has finished runner-up in his last two races at CMS. The No. 11 Toyota team's loop stats at Charlotte Motor Speedway are pretty strong, with Hamlin checking in at a respectable 92.1 driver rating. Also consider that the Joe Gibbs Racing star is riding an impressive five-race Top-10 streak at the Charlotte oval into this event. Hamlin's back may be a bit of a concern over the 600-mile distance, but his Top 5 return to full-time action at Darlington two weeks ago should dispel those concerns.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards and the No. 99 team have been putting together a very good season. He enters this race with seven Top 10s in the first 11 races and ranked a lofty second in the overall driver standings. Intermediate ovals have been very kind this season, as they have over his Sprint Cup Series career. Edwards' 63 percent Top-10 rate at Charlotte is probably the lowest of his intermediate oval resume, but that's still a pretty impressive rate for cracking the Top 10. His last three trips to CMS have netted third-, ninth- and seventh-place finishes for the No. 99 Ford team. The Roush Fenway Racing star should turn in another solid performance on Sunday night.

Kurt Busch -
The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team and driver Busch have been able to shake some of their early-season bad luck and put some of the fastest cars in the series on track the last few weeks. First, it was a great qualifying effort and Top-10 finish at Darlington, then it was the outside-pole position and dominant performance in last weekend's All-Star Challenge. This small team and driver are really clicking right now. Busch has one victory and four Top-10 finishes in his last nine Charlotte races. While most of those starts came for owner Roger Penske, we can't discount the veteran driver this weekend. As we saw on All-Star night, Busch still has what it takes to dominate an event.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning series champion had a rough night at Charlotte last weekend. His No. 2 Ford lost a transmission gear on the very start of the All-Star Challenge and Keselowski had to retire very early in that exhibition event. He'll be hungry to makeup for that disappointment with a great run in the Coca-Cola 600. Keselowski's short Charlotte resume shows only one pole and one Top-10 finish in seven career starts. Nevertheless, don't forget his dominant performance at this oval last October. The Penske Racing star led 139 laps and finished a respectable 11th in the Bank of America 500. Better things are definitely ahead for the champion at this oval.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon comes to Charlotte this weekend still looking for that mysterious and elusive victory lane. While he may not find it at CMS, Earnhardt should still be good for a great run at the intermediate oval. Earnhardt finished sixth in his last appearance at CMS and that was his 11th career Top 10 at Charlotte. Entering this weekend, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is looking to build on the solid performance he had in last weekend's All-Star Challenge. The most consistent driver in the series should labor to yet another Top 10 in this Sunday evening's Coca-Cola 600.

Clint Bowyer -
This intermediate oval has been a real puzzle for Bowyer over the years, but he's been making headway fast since moving to Michael Waltrip Racing. Those trends are going to continue this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600. Bowyer won for the first time ever at CMS in last October's Bank of America 500. His fifth-place finish at Kansas Speedway was his most recent effort on a 1.5-mile oval. Bowyer had a fast Toyota Camry on his hands in last Saturday night's All-Star Challenge. He led 11 laps before final pit stops shuffled him outside the Top 10. We expect Bowyer to be sneaky good this Memorial Day weekend.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver failed to win this past weekend's 40-lap Sprint Showdown, but he'll get another crack at this North Carolina oval this weekend. This time around he'll get a whopping 400 laps to make an impact. Almirola has been a very steady performer on the 1.5-mile ovals this season. With finishes of 16th-, seventh- and eighth-place at Las Vegas, Fort Worth and Kansas, the numbers are there to support a fantasy racing start this weekend. The No. 43 Ford has been fast, and the young driver has been doing the legacy of Richard Petty proud. Almirola won the pole, led 3 laps and finished a respectable 16th in this event one year ago. Somehow, we believe he'll fare even better this time around.

Joey Logano -
When we look at the recent Charlotte stats we discover that Logano owns the best average finish of any active driver at the oval. Granted, this is just a small sample size with eight career starts, it's still very impressive none-the-less. The Penske Racing youngster owns five Top-10 finishes in those eight starts and only one finish outside the Top 15. This will be his first start with new owner Roger Penske at CMS, but it should remain a high-level performance despite the change. Logano came on very fast late in last weekend's All-Star Challenge and finished runner-up in that exhibition event. That could be a preview of this Sunday night.

Jamie McMurray -
The deep sleeper of the group this week is Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and veteran driver McMurray. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet earned his first career Sprint Cup Series victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in 2002. That wasn't enough, as he returned here in the fall of 2010 and went to victory lane at CMS for the second time in his career. To say that the Charlotte oval is special to the EGR driver would be an understatement. Given McMurray's Sprint Showdown victory and Top-10 finish in the All-Star Challenge last Saturday night, we have high confidence in the No. 1 team in the Coca-Cola 600.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Among the dark horse contenders this weekend is Stenhouse and the No. 17 Ford team. While Bayne is just a rookie driver this season, he's worth some serious fantasy racing consideration when we visit these 1.5-mile speedways. The Roush Fenway Racing youngster has only two career Cup starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway but that shouldn't be a deterrent. Stenhouse an impressive 11th in this event one year ago, and he displayed a very fast car in last weekend's Sprint Showdown. He dogged Jamie McMurray over the final laps of that exhibition before finishing second and earning his first All-Star Challenge berth.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Tony Stewart -
The one-time Charlotte winner will saddle up and try to better his October 2012 performance at this intermediate oval. Stewart qualified 32nd, battled the traffic and earned a hard-fought 13th-place finish the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited Charlotte Motor Speedway. Considering that the No. 14 Chevrolet team has struggled all season long to this point, we have to downgrade Smoke this weekend. The owner/driver has no Top 10s in his three intermediate oval races in 2013 and a sub-par average finish of 17.7 in those starts. Stewart is looking at a very long 600 this weekend.

Mark Martin -
Martin has struggled to remain relevant this season. The No. 55 Toyota team has only three Top 10s in Martin's first nine races and that's a good bit off last year's pace. The MWR veteran has finished outside the Top 20 in his last two races and he's been failing to stay on the lead lap. Despite Martin's long list of accomplishments at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we have to turn down our expectations for this weekend. His last four trips to the North Carolina oval have only yielded one Top-10 finish and three finishes outside the Top 30. Martin's crash and DNF in last Saturday night's All-Star Challenge is a likely foreshadow of what's to come.

Danica Patrick -
Another intermediate oval means another weekend to pass up the Stewart Haas Racing femme. Patrick's experience on the 1.5-mile ovals this season has been a rocky affair. Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas have yielded finishes of 33rd-, 28th- and 25th-place to the driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet. This will be just her second career start at the Charlotte oval. Her debut was a less-than-inspiring 30th-place finish in last October's Bank of America 500. Look no further than Patrick's 20th (out of 22 competitors) place finish in this past weekend's All-Star Challenge if you're looking for a hint of how she'll perform in the Coca-Cola 600.

Jeff Gordon -
The five-time Charlotte winner will saddle up and try to snap his recent string of bad luck in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600. For Gordon's sake we hope he's found the cure for his improbable streak of terrible luck in 2013. However, recent trends at this track for the No. 24 Chevrolet team would seem to indicate that Gordon won't rediscover his groove this weekend. Four of Gordon's last five trips to Charlotte have yielded results outside the Top 15. The Hendrick Motorsports star was practically invisible in this past weekend's All-Star Challenge. He didn't lead a single lap of the 90-lap affair and finished a sub-par 12th in the prestigious exhibition race. We expect more of the same for the Coca-Cola 600.