Mash The Gas: Charlotte Preview

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series marks the halfway point in the Chase for the Championship under the lights Saturday as the Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the lone night race in the Chase with the Bank of America 500. Matt Kenseth holds a slim three point lead over a closing Jimmie Johnson while the wild and unpredictable Kansas race a week ago has allowed other drivers to move up in the standings.

The green flag is scheduled to fly at 7:46pm EDT on Saturday night to kick off 334 laps of racing under the lights on the mile and a half D-shaped Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.

Here are some drivers to watch Saturday night as the 2013 Chase hits the halfway mark.

Matt Kenseth
Dan Margetta: Saturday night at Charlotte could be a test for Matt Kenseth and the #20 team to see how well they handle the championship pressure. Jimmie Johnson and the #48 team have turned up the wick the last two weeks and have closed to a razor thin three points. Both teams enter Charlotte on relatively equal footing and Kenseth’s strong 1.5 mile track effort this season could give him a slight advantage. I feel the #20 team is better than the #48 on track and they can’t afford to get into a psychological war to lose that edge. Kenseth has won twice at Charlotte including this Chase race in 2011 and if the #20 team is as strong as they look on paper, he could regain the upper hand in the title fight on Saturday.

Jimmie Johnson
John Wiedemann: How did Jimmie Johnson not take the point lead away from Matt Kenseth at Kansas? Kenseth’s resiliency and recovery efforts make this championship battle very tough for Johnson as the Chase continues. While Kenseth is good at Charlotte, I would argue that Johnson is a little better. Johnson has six wins at Charlotte and an average finish of about 12th. Johnson leads in most of the NASCAR statistics at the track or is in second, so if you are looking for the team to pick at Charlotte, I would look to the #48. My prediction is a win and points lead when the checkers fly at CMS.

Kyle Busch
DM: Kyle Busch and the #18 team is another bunch facing a big test at Charlotte Saturday night as we find out how well they can bounce back from adversity. In the past, it was a major issue for the team and one bad Chase race would ruin their whole run. Busch faced his toughest weekend performance wise last week since missing the Chase in 2012 as he fell two spots in the points and made a new enemy in Brad Keselowski. A win at Charlotte where he owns eight top five finishes would make a strong answer to the question that is on everyone’s mind and prove that the Kyle Busch of 2013 has matured and is ready to win a championship.

Jeff Gordon
JW: Jeff Gordon is still looking for that first win of 2013, a win that could put him into championship contention. Gordon has five wins at Charlotte and an average finish of 16th in fourty-one races. Still in fourth place in the standings, Gordon is thirty-two points back after scoring his second consecutive top five Chase race finish last weekend at Kansas. With the top two drivers in the standings on fire, Gordon needs wins to join them, but the top fives keep him in the conversation for now. I’m thinking this weekend will be another top five with a shot at the win. The drive for five is still alive.

Kevin Harvick
DM: The Coca-Cola 600 winner couldn’t return to Charlotte at a better time than now, coming off the win at Kansas. Kevin Harvick may be on the verge of one of his traditional closing runs as he now sits third in points, 25 markers out of the lead. The team will bring the same chassis Harvick drove to the win last week at Kansas as they look to continue to close the gap to the leaders. Don’t let the fact he’s a lame duck driver with the Childress organization fool you as Kevin Harvick could sneak his way into the title fight with a good run in Charlotte on Saturday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
JW: Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t have great stats at Charlotte, but they aren’t terrible either. Still looking for his first win at the mile and a half, Junior could bump up his top ten streak to four in a row this weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports teams have improved this year at mile and a half configured tracks and Earnhardt ran solidly up front in the first half of the race at Kansas. Coming home to Charlotte should be another bump in the points for the #88 team who gained two positions following Kansas and currently sit in eighth, 54 points out of the lead.

Kurt Busch
DM: Kurt Busch and the #78 team continue to hang around even after many had written them off in this Chase. They have climbed back to 7th in points, still over a race out of the lead at 47 markers behind the leader. The big sore spot on the season continues to be the zero in the win column, yet they continue to show remarkable consistency. Coming off a second place finish last week, Kurt Busch has finished no worse than sixth in the last five races held on 1.5 mile circuits. I think they still need a win if they want to be champions and one of these times that consistency has to pay off. Maybe Saturday night in Charlotte it does.

Kasey Kahne
JW: Don’t discount Kasey Kahne when it comes to Charlotte. Even though he sits thirteenth in the Chase, Kahne is normally a rocketship at Charlotte. With four wins and eleven top ten finishes in nineteen races at CMS, Kahne will be in contention and probably out front. It will be interesting to see what happens if Kahne is leading with Gordon or Johnson behind him late in the race. 100%?

Clint Bowyer
DM: It looks like the fallout from Richmond has finally settled and Clint Bowyer and the #15 team can get back to concentrating on winning races. Bowyer has run well here in the past, scoring the win in this race last season. Currently ninth in the points and far out of the championship lead, Bowyer and the #15 team need a strong Charlotte race to salvage the season that prior to September looked so promising.

Carl Edwards
JW: Well, I ran out of Hendrick Motorsport drivers, did you notice? Anyway, I was surprised when I checked out the stats to see that Carl Edwards hasn’t won a points race at Charlotte. Edwards has an average finish matching Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, but without the wins. Sixty points behind the point leader pretty much takes Edwards out of contention in the Chase, but there may be a little time left to make a run. It would have to start with a win at Charlotte mixed in with bad luck for the current leaders and then, well, that’s why we watch.

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