Mash The Gas: Charlotte Preview

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

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series provides the nightcap of the Memorial Day Weekend racing holiday with its longest event as the Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday evening.

Following Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix and the legendary Indianapolis 500, the Coca-Cola 600 is a unique event in that along with the extra 100 miles, the drivers and teams must deal with multiple changing track conditions as the race begins in the late afternoon and finishes at night.

The Charlotte Motor Speedway is another 1.5 mile oval, similar to tracks in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Texas, and Kansas and this is the first time the new low downforce aerodynamic rules will be raced for 600 miles. The extra distance also brings team strategies into play as evidenced last year when Carl Edwards scored the win on fuel mileage. Set for Sunday evening, the Coca-Cola 600 is NASCAR’s most challenging event and here are some drivers to watch…

Kyle Busch (Dan Margetta)
Kyle Busch has been on a tear in the races held on 1.5 mile ovals as he owns top five finishes in all those races including victories at Texas and Kansas. While he has never won a Cup race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, he does have an impressive record here with ten top five finishes in 24 starts. Kyle Busch also has the second best driver rating at Charlotte and he comes into the Coca-Cola 600 at 6-1 odds to win. A few weeks ago, Kyle Busch checked Kansas off the list of tracks he had yet to win at and there is a strong possibility he could do the same at Charlotte on Sunday night. If he can avoid trouble early and survive to the end, Kyle Busch should definitely be considered a favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.

Carl Edwards (John Wiedemann)
With a second best in the series average finish at Charlotte of 10.545, you can bet Carl Edwards will be in the mix this weekend. Edwards has one victory and 17 top ten finishes in 22 races at Charlotte so statistically he is very good. Since his two victories at Bristol and Richmond Edwards hasn’t had the finishes he would like but a bounce back finish of fourth at the All-Star race should give him a lift as he heads back into points paying races this weekend. The 600 is a grueling race on man and machine and Edwards is just the driver to be able to handle that. My pick to win this weekend is Carl Edwards.

Joey Logano (DM)
Joey Logano has won the last two NASCAR Sprint Cup events held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, taking victories in the October race and the All-Star race last weekend. Logano also has five top five finishes and eight top ten results at Charlotte to go along with that victory last fall and he enters this weekend at 8-1 odds to win. He also boasts a strong Charlotte average finishing position of 9.5 and he has performed well on the 1.5 mile tracks this season, having finished second at Las Vegas and third at Texas. Joey Logano has yet to win this season and punch his ticket to the Chase and that could make things difficult for him on Sunday as those drivers who already have a 2016 victory have the luxury of being able to gamble late in the race to chase the race win. Joey Logano and the #22 team will be looking to extend the momentum from their All-Star victory and parlay that into a Coca-Cola 600 win.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
Kevin Harvick has three wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, two of them in the Coca-Cola 600. This would be a good time for Harvick to turn his season around and get back to the form he was in the beginning of the season. In the first five races of the season, Harvick finished no lower than seventh and captured his lone win. In the last seven points paying races, he has two top five finishes with a second and fifth place run, along with two fifteenth and a seventeenth place run. While Harvick has the win that will most likely get him in the Chase, the consistent top finishes should return soon and the best track for it to happen on is a 1.5 mile track like Charlotte.

Matt Kenseth (DM)
With all its changing conditions and strategies, the Coca-Cola 600 plays right into the hands of a calculating driver like Matt Kenseth. The ability to adapt to changes and the patience to strike when the time is right, have made the 600 a very good race for Kenseth. He captured his first Cup victory in this event in 2000 and he owns a pair of Charlotte victories to go along with ten top five finishes and seventeen top ten results. Kenseth is listed at 8-1 odds this week and his performances on the 1.5 mile tracks this season have been strong despite not having the desirable finishes. He had the black flag issue at Atlanta, crashed late in Vegas, and had a pit miscue in Texas before finally bringing home a top five finish in Kansas. The team followed up the Kansas result with a victory at Dover and they look to continue to turn around their early season bad luck with another victory in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night.

Kasey Kahne (JW)
If there is one track that Kasey Kahne has circled on the schedule, it must be Charlotte and the Coca-Cola 600. Kahne has captured three of his four Charlotte victories in the Coca-Cola 600, most recently in 2012. Kahne is 12 points out of the Chase at this moment and a solid Charlotte finish would give him a great boost. Of course a win would put him in the Chase. Kahne is a hard driver to base a fantasy league pick on or even more so, lay a bet down. But, he will be one to watch because he does so well in this event.

Kyle Larson (DM)
Kyle Larson’s finishes on the 1.5 mile tracks have not been impressive this year, but it’s what he has done lately that makes him my long shot pick this week for the Coca-Cola 600. He came oh so close to his first victory two weeks ago in Dover then won the Showdown and came within a lap of victory in the All-Star race here at Charlotte last weekend. Kyle Larson has been on a roll lately and he should run strong in the 600. The one factor that may hamper him a bit is how many changes that need to be made to keep the car fast as the race transitions from afternoon to night which requires a lot of driver feedback. In the past this team struggled in keeping up with those changes but judging from the last two weeks it seems they have begun to right that ship. Now can they keep it up for 600 miles? That’s the main question Kyle Larson and the #42 team have to answer on Sunday night where if they are on top of their game, they should be a contender.

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