Coca-Cola 600 Preview

A large crowd fills the grandstands at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. [Everet Kamikawa photo]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

Memorial Day Weekend is an auto racing fan’s dream and NASCAR’s version of the busy day culminates in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday evening from the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Coca-Cola 600
Charlotte Motor Speedway
600 miles (400 laps)
Sunday, May 28
6 p.m. ET
FOX, 5:30 p.m. ET
PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 100)
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 200)
Stage 3 (Ends on lap 300)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 400)
Providing the nightcap to the day’s earlier marquee events in the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, the Coca-Cola 600 begins in the late afternoon and finishes under the lights, meaning teams and drivers will have to battle changing track and weather conditions.

New this year is the stage racing concept and the introduction of a fourth stage, paying playoff points, which breaks down the 600 miles into four 150 mile segments. Also in the mix is the plan to treat the outside groove of the speedway with the PJ1 TrackByte traction substance used earlier this year at Bristol which could open up a faster upper lane for the drivers to use.

The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest and one of the toughest races of the year and here are some drivers to watch…

Martin Truex Jr. (Dan Margetta)
Last year’s dominating winner of this race remains the best driver on the 1.5 mile circuits this season and it’s no surprise Martin Truex Jr. is a heavy 9/2 odds on favorite to repeat his “600” victory this year. With wins already this year on similar tracks like Las Vegas and Kansas, Truex and the #78 team are the team to beat at the “cookie cutter” circuits. Truex has one win at Charlotte (last year when he destroyed the field) to go along with three top five results and seven top ten finishes. The new four stage format should prevent this team from running out too far ahead but they remain the favorites and I look for Martin Truex Jr. and the #78 team to be especially tough on Sunday night. A second consecutive Coca-Cola 600 win is a strong possibility for this driver and team.

Kyle Larson (John Wiedemann)
The guy who seems to always be the fastest at the track and always running up front is my pick to win the Coca-Cola 600. That driver is Kyle Larson. With one of his Verizon IndyCar Series teammates possibly winning the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day, Larson could make it one memorable day for team owner Chip Ganassi. Larson knows what it takes to get to the front and that is where you are going to want to be as passing is at a premium at Charlotte. Larson was fifth in the race last fall at Charlotte, his best finish at the track in seven races. Currently on top of the point standings and having won a race this season, Larson should be pretty safe to make the playoffs. Of course another win would solidify that position.

Kevin Harvick (DM)
Kevin Harvick is still searching for his first victory of 2017 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte provides an enticing opportunity to finally break through the win column. Harvick has three Charlotte victories, seven top five finishes, and fourteen top tens which lands him at 6-1 odds to win this weekend. This season on the 1.5 mile ovals, Harvick has mostly fared well finishing in the top five on two of the four races held and the ninth place finish in Atlanta after dominating all day still stings. The Coca-Cola 600 showcases crew chief strategy as well with the changing track conditions and Harvick has one of the best in the business on top the box in Rodney Childers. The longer race plays into the hands of Harvick and Childers and Sunday night they could finally get that elusive first win of the season and qualify for the playoffs.

Ryan Blaney (JW)
One of the hottest drivers on the mile-and-a-half type tracks has been young gun Ryan Blaney. Blaney has been getting better and better, including leading laps at Texas and Kansas as well as winning stages in those races as well. Blaney is still looking for the icing on the cake and that is to drive his Wood Brothers Ford into victory lane. That day is coming and it could very well be at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 where a number of NASCAR superstars found their first win. For Blaney to make that happen, he has to eliminate mistakes at the end of the race and not get fooled by a veteran racer on a late restart. Blaney is learning and learning quick. It has been fun to watch the progress of a guy who could become the next superstar.

Kyle Busch (DM)
Until last Saturday’s All Star race, Kyle Busch had never won at Charlotte in a NASCAR Cup car and with that monkey finally off his back he should be one of the drivers to watch on Sunday in the “600” as well. Busch owns the second best driver rating at Charlotte and comes into the event at 7-1 odds to win. Despite not having a Cup series regular event win, his track record at Charlotte is pretty impressive with ten top five finishes and fifteen top ten results. In the past, the race’s long distance seemed to enable Busch and his team to either make mistakes or miss on an adjustment which in the end may have salvaged a good finish but may have cost themselves a win. The new four stage format should suit Busch’s style perfectly as evidenced in the All Star race last Saturday and he could be in line for his first victory not only in the Coca-Cola 600 but of the season as well.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
A four-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 and eight-time winner at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson would love to return the track being his “house”. When Lowes, Johnson’s longtime sponsor, was the naming sponsor of the speedway Johnson was almost un-stoppable at the track. With his win last fall at Charlotte, Johnson could be starting a new run of dominance at the track. While all NASCAR drivers want to win in their “backyard”, Johnson and the #48 team made it their mission. That domination of Charlotte led to stats of 15 top five and 19 top ten finishes in 31 races. Johnson has an average finish of 12.6 and a series leading driver rating of 110.6. It is very likely that the trend will continue this weekend.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
My long shot pick this week is Matt Kenseth…yes you heard that right…Matt Kenseth is my long shot pick for Charlotte. Kenseth is listed this week at enticing 25-1 odds for an event that has been a favorite of his. Traditionally Kenseth has exceled in races where multiple changes are needed to keep up with the strategy of changing race conditions and the Coca-Cola 600 features just that. His record at Charlotte includes two victories, eleven top five results and nineteen top ten finishes. So far this year, Kenseth and the #20 team have not had luck on their side but the Coca-Cola 600 could be the right venue to showcase their talent. A possible set back could be the new four stage format as usually they seem to succeed more over long runs but don’t count them out on Sunday. Matt Kenseth is another driver in search of a win yet this season to qualify for the playoffs and the Coca-Cola 600 presents a prime opportunity to accomplish the feat.

Kasey Kahne (JW)
It is hard to know which Kasey Kahne will show up. Statistically, he is at the top of the series drivers with four wins, ten top five and fourteen top ten finishes. Kahne’s average finish of 12th is even better than his teammate Jimmie Johnson and is second best in the series and his driver rating is fifth overall. This season has been a bit of a rollercoaster, starting off strong with top tens at Daytona and Atlanta and then fading to twentieth place runs and recently looking better with a fifth and fifteenth place finish. Kahne is on the edge of making the playoffs, but with past winning drivers still looking for their first victory this season, that edge is looking more like a canyon. It is likely that only winning drivers will make the playoffs this season and one of the best shots for victory is a intermediate track like Charlotte.

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