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Coca-Cola 600 Preview: Memorial Day Marathon

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 NASCAR stays in North Carolina for our racing action. On the heels of the recently completed Sprint All-Star Race, we return to 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 Sprint Cup Series' many 1.5-mile tri-ovals. It's very similar to both Atlanta and 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.

Last weekend's All-Star Race has given us our first look at the facility in Charlotte this season. 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 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. We believe that this past weekend's All-Star Race could be the best indicator of who has the speed early in a run, but over the long green-flag runs it could be entirely different. Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick, who dominated this past weekend's 90-lap exhibition event, should show up with the same speed that they had throughout the All-Star Race. 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 with Jamie McMurray.

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 Race 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 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 nine years or 18 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson12.89226217335,588111.1
Kyle Busch14.09234528625,106107.5
Kasey Kahne10.28146628944,462102.6
Matt Kenseth14.57853634014,25096.0
Denny Hamlin13.27252201654,48893.4
Greg Biffle16.06893024373,89191.4
Carl Edwards11.87351261064,00789.8
Jeff Gordon18.77002193143,85588.8
Joey Logano10.44864831,82087.3
Kurt Busch19.45932044513,43484.7
Tony Stewart16.76101892873,12483.6
Brad Keselowski16.3329951631,45783.0
Clint Bowyer15.5573881163,09782.2
Brian Vickers21.42931963321,65881.3
Jeff Burton15.7559106782,95880.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.21.95641601452,89779.7
Kevin Harvick16.262656323,53278.9
Ryan Newman18.3560761393,02578.4
Jamie McMurray20.15541371282,43877.1
Martin Truex Jr.18.45416193,06476.1

Chevrolet teams have gotten the best of the competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway for years, but there are recent signs that this is changing. Ford and Toyota teams have won three of the last five races at the intermediate oval. The track that bowtie teams dominated for years seems to be becoming a venue of parity. With Jamie McMurray's victory for the Chevrolet camp this past weekend, we'll see if the scales are tilting back in the favor of Chevrolet. Ford driver Brad Keselowski won the last race at the North Carolina oval with his victory in last October's Bank of America 500. He out-dueled Kasey Kahne to claim his first career win at Charlotte. Given the strength of Penske Racing Fords this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, this will be a much anticipated event for that racing stable. Speaking of Kahne, the Hendrick Motorsports veteran is fresh off a strong performance in last week's All-Star Race. Despite the night ending in a crash, the No. 5 Chevrolet was one of the fastest cars on the track most of the night. In this event one year ago, Kevin Harvick led Chevrolet to victory lane with his thrilling rundown of Kahne in that Coca-Cola 600. The Stewart Haas Racing star has two Charlotte victories in his resume and both of those have come in the 600. You could say that Kahne and Harvick have both become sort of specialists 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 recent past and is not completely unheard of in the 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 Jamie McMurray be poised to repeat that scenario this weekend? Given how he ran away from the field in the final segment of the All-Star Race, we would rate those odds as at least a reasonable possibility. 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 posted a third-place finish at the similar oval in Kansas a couple weeks ago, you can bet it will be on its 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 1,100 career laps led at this facility, we're more than familiar with seeing the Hendrick Motorsports star race among the leaders here. Kahne won two segments of last Saturday night's All-Star Race, so the No. 5 Chevrolet should be dialed-in for this 600-mile event.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is a two-time Charlotte winner, and he's our defending event champion having taken the checkers in last season's Coca-Cola 600. In addition, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran is a one-time All-Star winner at this oval. He led 5 laps and finished runner-up in this past Saturday night's All-Star Race. It would appear Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have things figured out well heading into this Sunday night's long race at CMS. Harvick won the pole, led 119 laps and finished runner-up in our last intermediate oval race at Kansas a couple weeks ago. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet will be a powerful contender in the Coca-Cola 600.

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 1,569 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 130 laps and finished an impressive fourth in the Bank of America 500. The six-time champion hasn't shown the winning touch thus far this season, but if there's a weekend for Johnson to break out this is it.

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 five visits to the North Carolina speedway alone, Busch has amassed 235 laps led and he's collected four Top-5 finishes including a runner-up finish. He's a factor each time we race here, and it's just a matter of time before all the winning ingredients come together for the No. 18 Toyota team at this oval.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he enters this weekend as one of the most consistent drivers in the series on intermediate ovals. The Joe Gibbs Racing star just finished third in our All-Star Race at Charlotte this past weekend, so that's proof positive that he's in top form at these style tracks. Kenseth also finished third in our last points race at Charlotte when he claimed the impressive Top 5 in last October's Bank of America 500. We expect the driver of the No. 20 Toyota and his high-flying team to come to Charlotte prepared this Sunday evening.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has been one of the strongest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series on the cookie cutter ovals for the last five of those events. Logano won earlier this season at Fort Worth and he has four Top-5 finishes in those five 1.5-mile oval events. Prior to the All-Star break, the driver of the No. 22 Ford led 63 laps and finished fourth at Kansas Speedway. Logano's Charlotte resume is pretty strong as well. He has six Top-10 finishes in 10 career starts at the North Carolina Speedway. The bottom line is that Logano is a great outside contender for the win and sure bet for a Top-5 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards and the No. 99 team have been putting together a very good season. He enters this race with six Top 10s in the first 11 races and ranked a lofty fifth in the overall driver standings. Intermediate ovals have been very kind this season, as they have over his Sprint Cup Series career. Edwards' 61-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. He has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five trips to the Charlotte oval. The Roush Fenway Racing star should turn in another solid performance this Sunday night.

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. A good performance in Sunday's night's race will help erase the disappointment of the crash and DNF in last weekend's All-Star Race. Gordon has a win and runner-up finish in his last two intermediate oval starts at Kansas and Fort Worth. That bodes well for the No. 24 team entering the Coca-Cola 600. His last start at CMS was a pole position, 26 laps led and respectable seventh-place finish in last October's Bank of America 500. He should have no trouble equaling that effort this weekend.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion had a so-so All-Star outing, finishing 10th after showing so much speed on these style ovals earlier this season. He'll be hungry to makeup for that disappointment with a great run in the Coca-Cola 600. Keselowski's short Charlotte resume isn't that impressive, but we must remember he won our last points race here by overtaking Kasey Kahne late in last season's Bank of America 500. With over 150 laps led this season on intermediate ovals, the Penske Racing star is one of our top performers on these style tracks.

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 fourth in this past weekend's All-Star Race. Entering this weekend, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is looking to build on that solid performance. His four Top-5 finishes in the series' last five intermediate oval events speaks volumes of where the No. 88 team is right now. Earnhardt should have no problem soldiering to another Top-10 finish in the 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 2012's Bank of America 500. Since then he's finished eighth- and 11th-place at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he won last weekend's Sprint Showdown to transfer into the All-Star Race. Bowyer went onto show speed and finish a respectable seventh in the 90-lap exhibition race. The Michael Waltrip Racing star has good trends on the Charlotte oval, and he should be a good performer in this 600-mile marathon.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver failed to win this past weekend's 40-lap Sprint Showdown, but he finished a respectable fifth in that 23-driver field. 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 12th- and eighth-place at 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 finished 23rd in his last appearance at Charlotte Motor Speedway in last October's Bank of America 500. Somehow, we believe he'll fare much better this time around.

A.J. Allmendinger -
After leading laps and finishing an impressive runner-up in this past week's Sprint Showdown, Allmendinger hopes that the Coca-Cola 600 will be his encore act. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has had a bit of an up-and-down season in 2014, but he has managed three Top-10 finishes to this point and a respectable 17th-place rank in the overall driver standings. Allmendinger has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to the Charlotte oval. While it's noteworthy that those are the only two Top 10s of his career at this facility, it still speaks to his comfort of racing here. The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver should challenge the Top15 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 way 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 surprise victory in this past weekend's All-Star Race, he may not be as much of a sleeper at this oval anymore.

Kyle Larson -
Among the dark horse contenders this weekend is Larson and the No. 42 Chevrolet team. While Larson is just a rookie driver this season, he's worth some serious fantasy racing consideration when we visit these 1.5-mile speedways. The Chip Ganassi Racing youngster has one Top-5 and two Top-15 finishes on these style ovals in 2014. Larson finished a respectable sixth in his first career Sprint Showdown this past weekend at CMS, and that's just likely a preview of things to come for this young driver. He should be a Top-15 finisher in the Coca-Cola 600.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kurt Busch -
Busch's tough season with the No. 41 team has been exacerbated with the intermediate ovals. At Las Vegas, Fort Worth and Kansas he's posted finishes of 26th-, 39th- and 29th-place. When we couple his recent performance with his career 26-percent Top-10 rate at Charlotte Motor Speedway, we get clear indication to stay clear of any fantasy racing expectations for this driver and team this Sunday. When we take into account that Busch will be racing earlier in the day at Indianapolis and then again later that evening in Charlotte, the 1,100 miles in one day have to be a concern for any driver pulling the “double” on Memorial Day weekend.

Tony Stewart -
The one-time Charlotte winner will attempt to reverse his recent fortunes with a good outing in the Coca-Cola 600. Smoke has only four Top 10s this season and sits a lowly 22nd in the driver standings coming into Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately for the No. 14 Chevrolet team, the Charlotte resume for Stewart isn't that great. He has only two Top 10s in his last 11 races at this 1.5-mile track. With finishes of 33rd-, 10th- and 20th-place at ovals like Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas, we have to look elsewhere for our fantasy racing help at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin -
Historically speaking, Hamlin would appear to be a great start this weekend for the Coca-Cola 600. His strong stats and impressive 93.4 driver rating in the table above beckon a fantasy start. However, we have to take into account current performance before we hit the submit button on our lineup for Charlotte. Hamlin enters the weekend 12th in the driver standings and with only one Top-10 finish in his last six races. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's finishes of 12th-, 13th- and 18th-place on the intermediate ovals

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver has a spotty intermediate oval record in tow coming into this weekend's race. Stenhouse has four finishes outside the Top 20 in his last five races on 1.5-mile ovals. That doesn't build a lot of confidence in the No. 17 team for the Coca-Cola 600. While the young driver's Charlotte record is better with a pair of Top-15 finishes in his last two starts at the North Carolina speedway. Still, it's the recent performance that draws the most scrutiny. We expect a finish around his season average of 22.2 in this Sunday's 600-mile race. That's well below our expectations for this driver and team.