Mash The Gas: Charlotte Preview

The field takes the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. [Credit: Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images]

Charlotte Motor Speedway is the place this weekend as round two, the Challenger Round, is starts to shrink the Chase field from twelve drivers to eight. [Credit: Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The Challenger Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship kicks off Saturday night with the Bank of America 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bank of America 500
Charlotte Motor Speedway
501 miles (334 laps)
Saturday, Oct. 10 7pm ET
NBC, 7pm ET
PRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
The Charlotte race is the only night race of the Chase and it holds significant importance as a victory here means a driver is safe at the next elimination event at the wildly unpredictable Talladega in two weeks.

With the Chase field down to 12, the next three events mark the toughest round to advance through and wins are a top priority. We saw that last year at this race with the much talked about post-race scuffle between Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth.

This year’s Chase has not failed to disappoint in the drama department as already we’ve seen the defending champ rise up for a walk-off win and a six-time champion get knocked out by a $5 part.

The Chase continues on Saturday night with the Bank of America 500 from Charlotte and here are some drivers to watch…

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
Since the last time the series was in Charlotte, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have risen to the top, claiming 11 wins in the past 18 races. If you count the All-Star race, they have won the last four races contested on the 1.5 mile oval circuits and Matt Kenseth has traditionally raced well at Charlotte. Sitting at 7-1 odds this week, he owns two Charlotte victories to go along with 10 top five finishes and 17 top ten results. Kenseth was able to escape the elimination pressure in the last round by winning at New Hampshire and no doubt he will look forward to scoring another ticket forward at Charlotte. Kenseth knows as well as anybody how big of an advantage it would be to go into Talladega safe from elimination and he and the #20 team are ready to march forward in their championship run. Look for Matt Kenseth to once again be contending for the win at Charlotte.

Kevin Harvick (John Wiedemann)
Will the dramatic win from last weekend provide a hangover for Kevin Harvick or is it the spark to go on a winning run? As dominant as the #4 was last weekend (until it was backed into a wall during celebration time), the rest of the seven Chase drivers have something to be worried about. So much so that Denny Hamlin may have fired up the verbal portion of the competition hinting about Harvick’s motivation for damaging his car after the victory. The thing is that any of the talking will just fire Harvick up that much more. I don’t think stats are important this weekend for Harvick, you just need to look at the whoppin’ he put on the field last week and see if it is going to happen again on Saturday night.

Kyle Busch (DM)
Kyle Busch staved off elimination in the last round by finishing strong second last week at Dover so watch him come out swinging at Charlotte. While he has yet to win here, Busch has had some very strong runs at similar tracks as he led the most laps at both Kentucky (where he won) and Chicago. Busch does have 10 top five finishes at Charlotte and 14 top tens so he is no stranger to running up front. Plus, no one knows just how vulnerable those are who are not safe at Talladega in a few weeks as last year Busch was knocked out of contention despite being the point leader heading into the race. Listed at 6-1 odds to win on Saturday night, Kyle Busch and the #18 are approaching Charlotte as a race they can win to move into the next round.

Jeff Gordon (JW)
Kind of a quiet Chase so far for Jeff Gordon but he made it through the first round as his teammate Jimmie Johnson didn’t. This weekend’s race at Charlotte could bookend his Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup Series career. Gordon won his first Cup race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and could win his last Cup race at the same track, although he is my pick to win the upcoming race at Martinsville. Gordon has always had a flair for the dramatic and this would be a dramatic story to win a Chase race in his final season. Gordon’s stats are pretty nice with five wins, 17 top five and 24 top ten finishes in 45 starts at Charlotte. Look for those stats to get even better this weekend.

Denny Hamlin (DM)
Does anyone see a pattern with my picks here? The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drivers have been on top of the NASCAR world for the past few months and I think they will be strong at Charlotte as well. That includes Denny Hamlin, the Chicago winner who comes into Charlotte listed at very generous 10-1 odds to win. Another driver who has yet to win a point race at Charlotte (Hamlin won the special All-Star race here in May), Denny Hamlin is showing the same consistent form that took him all the way to the Homestead finale a season ago. Hamlin has four top five finishes to go along with twelve top ten results at Charlotte and as we learned at Chicago a few weeks ago, you can’t count him out. If he can out run his teammates, Denny Hamlin could find himself in victory lane at Charlotte when the checkered flag drops on Saturday night.

Carl Edwards (JW)
Gotta stick with the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and the only one that Dan left me is Carl Edwards. That’s ok though because Edwards is the most recent winner at Charlotte after his Coca-Cola 600 victory there in May. That win was the breakthrough victory for Edwards after a difficult start to the season. Lately, the Gibbs driver have been dominant and either one of the four could end up in victory lane on Saturday night. In 21 starts at Charlotte, Edwards has that one win to go along with seven top five and 14 top ten runs averaging an 11th place finish. Could all four Gibbs drivers be the final four in Homestead? It certainly is possible and a win this weekend would get one of them closer. I’m going with Edwards this weekend – no other choice since Dan grabbed the other three.

Joey Logano (DM)
The guy with the best average finishing position at Charlotte still hasn’t captured his first victory here. We’re talking about Joey Logano who has four top five finishes and seven top ten results which gives him a series best average finishing position of 10.2. Logano is listed at 10-1 odds this week and while the Hendrick Chevys dominated the 1.5 mile tracks early in the season and the Gibbs Toyotas are the guys to beat now, one thing that has remained consistent is Joey Logano has been in their tire tracks all season long. Logano finished fourth in this race a year ago and he has continued to rattle off the strong finishes needed to remain firmly in the championship hunt. As we get deeper in the Chase the wins become more and more valuable and Saturday night could be when Joey Logano drives the #22 Penske Ford back to victory lane.

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