Wednesday, May 22, 2019

NASCAR Cup Series Notes: 2019 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

Kyle Busch is 7/2 to win at Charlotte Sunday.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Coca-Cola 600
The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, May 26
The Time: 6:00 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 5:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 600 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 100),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 200), Stage 3 (Ends on Lap 300), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Busch back to defend
Kyle Busch is the defending winner of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – collecting his first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at the track from the Busch Pole position after leading a dominating 377 of 400 laps last May. 

It was a breakthrough win of sorts for the 2015 Monster Energy Series champion. The Charlotte Motor Speedway oval was, at the time, the only venue on the schedule where Busch hadn’t won a regular season race even though he leads all active drivers (including eight-time Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson) in laps led (1,370 laps) and trails only Johnson (16-12) in top-five finishes.

The good vibe and historical significance of his maiden Charlotte win may help get Busch back on the course he’s established with 11 top-10 finishes and three victories through 12 races this season.

He suffered his first finish outside the top 10 in the last points race at Kansas Speedway on May 11. The frustrating 30th-place showing in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was a result of a late race penalty for driving through too many pit boxes. It not only kept him from setting a record for consecutive top 10s to open the season (12) but cost him in the standings. He now trails defending Monster Energy Series champion Joey Logano by nine points. He still maintains a 29-point edge over a winless third place Kevin Harvick.

He looks forward to this weekend’s challenge at Charlotte, however. Even though it took Busch most of his Cup career to earn that first win in the Memorial Day 600-miler at Charlotte, he is a staunch supporter of the sport’s longest event and feels that it holds a special and unique place in the sport.

“I like running the 600 miles,’’ Busch said. “I think it brings a different aspect to our sport – it’s longevity. People will say, ‘It’s too long. It’s boring.’ Whatever. Well, you know, it’s a part of the product and history that we’ve had on Memorial Day weekend for a long time that you run the extra hundred miles.

“And car preparation goes into that. Will your car make it? Will your engine last? Are the drivers able to be competitive throughout the whole race? You’ll have fatigue sometimes, even at a 500-mile race. So, if you don’t show signs of weakness, you should be pretty good.’’

Logano leading the way
The reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano put himself back atop the points standings following his 15th-place finish at Kansas Speedway coupled with a very uncharacteristic 30th-place showing by previous points leader Kyle Busch. It’s as much a testament to his solid consistency as anything else as he has only one victory this year while the man he supplanted, Busch, has three wins.

In fact, Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski has hoisted a trio of trophies as well and is only ranked fifth, a substantial 57 points behind Logano in the standings.

The difference is consistency. Logano has eight top-10 finishes through the opening 12 races and has led laps in 10 of them. Four times Logano has finished in the top three - winning at Las Vegas, finishing runner-up at both California and Richmond, Va., and earning a third place at Bristol, Tenn.

Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford team has only one previous win at Charlotte – the fall, 2015 race after leading a dominating 227 of the 334 laps. He’s had only one top-20 in the five races at the 1.5-mile track since – a ninth place in the 2016 600-miler - and has led only 16 laps in that timeframe.

Larson looking to keep momentum going
It’s been a good May for Kyle Larson, who picked up his first Monster Energy Series trophy in nearly two years in last weekend Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race – having to qualify for the main event out of the Monster Energy Open to do so. While the race didn’t pay in points, it did pay $1 million to the winner and for Larson, provided some important momentum.

The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is coming off two of his best finishes of the 2019 season – a third-place at Dover, Del. and an eighth-place effort at Kansas two weeks ago.

It’s a positive sign that Larson may be on track to snap a 58-race winless streak. His top-10 and top-five effort in the last three years has been among the sport’s very best. He has 58 top-10 finishes starting with his 2016 season – 38 of those were top-five efforts. That means that 65.5 percent of the time he’s run well enough for a top-10, he’s also been good enough to challenge for a win.

This season in particular, has felt like all-or-nothing with three DNFs and two top-10s in the last six races.

“As I've learned in my Cup career, aside from 2017, it's pretty tough to make the Playoffs,’’ Larson told reporters following the All-Star win last weekend. “There's a lot of cars that make it, but those last four or five spots, depending on what guys win throughout the season, it's tough to make the Playoffs.

“With the string of DNFs that I had and bad finishes, that's what was more frustrating because I knew we were putting ourselves in a bad spot to make it to the Playoffs where you have to be extremely consistent and just take what you can get from now on, where you can't almost be as aggressive as you could be if you had a fast car and were consistently running in the top five and stuff like that. That's what was more frustrating. 

“I feel like Kansas kind of showed it last week.  I feel like I've been like a seventh‑ or eighth‑ to kind of 12th‑place car all season, but I haven't got to show for it.  And seventh to 12th isn't that great.  A week ago or a few days ago I would say we can't win a race like that, but we proved today that we could. 

“We've just got to continue to keep working hard and learning what we can, making our cars better and faster and more grip, more speed, everything.  Pit crew has got to be on it, I've got to be on it if we want to continue to run up front.”

Harvick still looking to close one out
By the time Kevin Harvick and the Stewart-Haas Racing team showed up at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day classic last year, the 2014 Monster Energy Series champion had already earned five victories. This year he’s been close with five top fives – all fourth-place finishes – for the driver of the No. 4 Ford.

There is reason to feel optimistic at Charlotte. He joins only Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson with victories in NASCAR’s four biggest races – the Daytona 500 (2007), the Coca-Cola 600 (2011, 2013), the Brickyard 400 (2003) and the Southern 500 (2014). And Harvick’s 2011 Coca-Cola 600 win was from the 28th starting place on the grid. Only eight-time Charlotte winner Johnson has come from farther back on the grid to win at Charlotte, starting 37th in his 2003 win. Harvick’s four runner-up finishes at Charlotte are most among active drivers too.

Harvick is currently ranked third in the standings, 38 points behind leader Joey Logano. He comes to Charlotte after a solid run at the 1.5-mile Kansas track, where he won the Busch Pole position, led 104 laps, but finished 13th. He has eight top 10s in the 12 races despite having endured a tough pair of outings on the big tracks at Daytona and Talladega - crashing in both races and finishing 26th and 38th, respectively.

Of course, the 1.5-milers are considered Harvick’s playground. Fifteen of his 45 career wins – a full one-third of his victory total – are comprised of the 1.5-mile tracks, the most of any type of race venue.

Charlotte is a missing piece in Hamlin’s trophy case
Denny Hamlin does a lot of things right at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he just doesn’t have the hardware to show for it. Yet.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has the third best driver rating (97.3) at the track, the second-best average finish (12.1) in the field and his 10.5 average start in the race is third best among active drivers. He ranks among the top three in several of the major loop data categories at the track but is among eight drivers ranked in the standings top 16 still looking for his first victory there.

In 26 starts, Hamlin has nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes – only eight-time Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson has more top-10 finishes among active drivers.

After enduring the first winless full-time season of his decorated 14-year career in 2018, Hamlin answered with a season-opening victory in this year’s Daytona 500 and then added a win at the Texas Motor Speedway 1.5-mile high banks last month. He has eight top-10 finishes through 12 races but has gone three consecutive races finishing outside the top-10 threshold.

“I’m proud of our team and the character we’ve shown so far this season. We started off hot with two wins and our focus is to get back to that momentum and achieve our next victory and move up in the standings.”

King of the Queen City
When it comes to the Coca-Cola 600, Martin Truex Jr. has established the mark of excellence. He led a historical best 392 of the 400 laps from the Busch Pole position en route to his 2016 victory in the race. And he’s answered that big win with another in the fall of 2017. In just the last five races, Truex has led an amazing 716 laps on the Charlotte oval – most among any driver during that time. He’s only finished worse than third place once in the last five races.

There is every reason to believe Truex will take his new team, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota crew, to competitive heights as well. He’s won two of the last four races on the schedule – leading 186 of 400 laps to claim the Richmond trophy and leading 132 laps to win at Dover He’s currently ranked seventh in the points, his two wins equal to half of his top five total on the season.

“Charlotte has been a really strong track for us the past few years,’’ Truex acknowledged. “I felt good about how our car drove in the All-Star race last weekend, so that gives me confidence going into this weekend that we can make some of those same things work for the 600. … I’m looking forward to getting into a normal race mode and see where we stack up.’’

Austin Dillon hoping for a return “home” to Victory Lane
One driver in particular looking forward to racing on his “home” track is Austin Dillon. The driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet won the 2017 race inheriting the lead when Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel with two laps remaining. They were the only two laps Dillon led.

It was an emotional triumph for Dillon and the team. It was Dillon’s first Monster Energy Series victory and it was the first time the No. 3 RCR Chevrolet had won a race since the late Dale Earnhardt at Talladega, Ala. in 2000.

Since then Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500 – leading only the final lap. He’s currently ranked 18th, just outside the Playoff-eligible top-16. He trails 16th place Johnson by 11 points. Charlotte has been a good track for the North Carolina native – just not consistently in the Monster Energy Series yet.

He won back-to-back Xfinity Series races at Charlotte – both from the pole position – sweeping the 2015 season.

Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations
Six drivers from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher, Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, Front Row Motorsports’ Matt Tifft, Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. will be participating in this week’s media rotations at Charlotte Motor Speedway in advance of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m., ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Chris Buescher, 26, of Prosper, Texas, is looking to enhance his Charlotte Motor Speedway resume. He has three top-20 finishes in five series starts at the track – and was 29th in last year’s Coca-Cola 600. The former Monster Energy Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year has a pair of top-10s in 2019 – both coming at 1.5-mile tracks similar to Charlotte. He was a season-best ninth at Atlanta in February and 10th in the last Cup points-paying race at Kansas two weeks ago in the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet. He’s ranked 23rd in the points standings.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 31, of Olive Branch, Miss., scored his best showing of the season at a 1.5-mile track – a sixth place at Las Vegas – and is hoping that success in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford will translate again to the Charlotte 1.5-mile high banks. Stenhouse has seven finishes of 16th or better through the opening 12 races and is ranked 20th in the standings – within reach of the 16-driver group that will ultimately advance to the series Playoffs. His only top-10 finish in the series at Charlotte came in last May’s 600-miler (10th).

Kyle Larson, 26, of Elk Grove, Calif., comes into the Coca-Cola 600 feeling most optimistic fresh off his first ever Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race win at the track last weekend. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver seems to have put his season back on track. Prior to the win he had a pair of top-10 finishes – third at Dover and eighth at Kansas.  He’s ranked 15th in the points coming into the Coca-Cola 600. He has four top 10s in the No. 42 CGR Chevrolet at Charlotte including the last two oval races there. His best finish is fifth in the 2016 fall race; however, he has won a Xfinity Series race at the track (2014, spring).

Matt Tifft, 22, of Hinckley, Ohio, is still looking for his first top 10 in his rookie Cup season. His best showing so far in the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford is 20th at Phoenix. He was 21st in the last Cup points-paying race at Kansas. Tifft’s Charlotte resume includes three top 10s in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two in a pair of NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series races. His best career showing at the track is a fifth place in the 2016 Gander Trucks race.

Daniel Hemric, 28, of Kannapolis, N.C., brings an encouraging mindset to his home track, Charlotte Motor Speedway. He scored his best finish (18th) at a similar 1.5-miler in the season’s last points race at Kansas two weeks ago. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender has one top-10 finish (fifth at Talladega) but surely encouraged by three top 10 qualifying efforts in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. His only previous top-10 finish at Charlotte was a ninth place run in the 2016 truck race there.

Martin Truex Jr., 38, of Mayetta, N.J., boasts some good mojo heading into Charlotte, where in 2016 he set an all-time best record leading 392 of the 400 laps en route to his first Coca-Cola 600 win. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been particularly good of late at Charlotte – he dominated the 2016 Memorial Day classic, won the 2017 fall race as part of his Monster Energy Series championship season and was runner-up in the 600 last year. Truex has wins in two of the last four races in 2019 - at Richmond and Dover. – leading more than 100 laps in each win. He has seven top-10 and four top-five showings and is ranked seventh in the points.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

NASCAR Xfinity Series returns at Charlotte Motor Speedway
After a two-week break, the NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to action this Saturday, May 25 at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio for the Alsco 300, the 11th race on 2019 schedule. This season has been filled with lots of great racing, producing four different pole winners and five different race winners - four of which are series title contenders – Christopher Bell (three wins), Cole Custer (two wins), Michael Annett (one win), and series standings leader Tyler Reddick (one win). 

Charlotte Motor Speedway has hosted the NASCAR Xfinity Series 73 times, producing a total of 47 different pole winners and 35 different race winners since 1982.

Harry Gant won the first NASCAR Xfinity Series race held at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 1982, from the pole position. Gant went on to win three more Xfinity races at Charlotte Motor Speedway bringing his wins total on the 1.5-mile speedway to four. Gant is tied for third-most Xfinity Charlotte wins with Brad Keselowski, who won his fourth Xfinity Series career race at Charlotte Motor Speedway from the pole last season.

This weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark the fourth time in 2019 the series has competed on a 1.5-mile track (Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas). Christopher Bell took the win at Atlanta and then his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch won at Las Vegas and Texas, but Busch is not entered this weekend.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell currently leads the series championship contenders in average finishing position on 1.5-mile tracks this season with a 5.667. Below are the top five NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contenders in average finishing position on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

Xfinity Contenders
Average Finish on 1.5-Mile Tracks
Christopher Bell
Tyler Reddick
Michael Annett
Justin Haley
Noah Gragson

Sixers: Different winners streak at Charlotte could continue
A streak that started back in 2015 when Austin Dillon swept the Charlotte Motor Speedway races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series has since seen five different drivers – Denny Hamlin (May 2016), Joey Logano (Oct. 2016), Ryan Blaney (May 2017), Alex Bowman (Oct. 2017) and Brad Keselowski (May 2018) – take the checkered flag and bring the different winners streak to six different drivers.

Will the streak continue? There’s a chance, as the only former winner included in the current streak that is entered this weekend is Austin Dillon, who will be piloting the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet Camaro.

This weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the 2013 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Austin Dillon, will be making his second series start of the season for Kaulig Racing with crew chief Alex Yontz. Dillon and Yontz, came out of the gate swinging in their series debut at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this year, starting 31st and racing their way to a top-five finish (fourth). 

Dillon has nine career wins in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two of them came at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2015 sweep). In total he has made 10 series starts at Charlotte posting three poles, two wins (both from the pole), six top fives and seven top 10s. His average starting position at Charlotte is 3.9 and his average finish is 5.8.

Names are made in the Xfinity Series at Charlotte
Charlotte First-Time Winners
Alex Bowman
October 7, 2017
Dave Blaney
October 13, 2006
Mike Bliss
October 15, 2004
Sterling Marlin
October 6, 1990
Terry Labonte
October 5, 1985
Tim Richmond
May 25, 1985
Bobby Allison
May 26, 1984
Darrell Waltrip
October 9, 1982
Harry Gant
May 29, 1982
Nine different drivers have won their very first career race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and all nine have made names for themselves in NASCAR.

The most recent driver to win his first series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was Alex Bowman in the 2017 October Xfinity race. Bowman was running a part-time schedule for Chip Ganassi Racing that season and capitalized on his opportunity. 

Prior to Bowman it was father of current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney and legend in DIRT Racing driver ‘The Buckeye Bullet’ Dave Blaney, who earned his lone NASCAR national series career win with his victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Charlotte in 2006. Blaney battled it out with Matt Kenseth in the closing laps to take the victory. 

Most notable of the nine winners has to be the three NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip (1982), Bobby Allison (1984) and Terry Labonte (1985), who all scored their first career Xfinity Series wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

This weekend could be another driver’s big opportunity to break out and win their first career NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway; of the 39 entrants for the Alsco 300 on Saturday, May 25 (at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) only 13 are former winners leaving 26 drivers hungry for their first trip to Victory Lane.

Austin Dillon (2015 sweep) and Jeff Green (May 2001, May 2002) are the only two former NASCAR Xfinity Series Charlotte Motor Speedway winners in the field this weekend.

Bell has some ground to makeup to catch Reddick in the points
Idling in second in the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell, might have the advantage in wins over NASCAR Xfinity Series points leader Tyler Reddick so far this season (three to one), but Bell’s lack of consistency has mounted a hill of points (-23) he will need make up to catch Reddick in the standings lead for the regular season championship.

Both drivers are vying for the regular season championship because the winner is awarded 15 additional Playoff points to take into the postseason. With both Reddick and Bell locked into the Playoffs on wins, collecting Playoff points will be key to their success later in the postseason. 

Bell’s three race wins (Atlanta, Bristol and Dover) and four stage wins (tied for series-most with Cole Custer) this season have given him 19 Playoff points and he currently holds the No. 1 seed in the Playoffs.

Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick on the other hand, is the current standings leader and has grabbed one win and two stage wins bringing his Playoff points total to seven points this season.

If the regular season were to end today, Reddick as the current standings leader would then receive the additional Playoff points (+15) for winning the regular season championship and as a result would become the No. 1 seed entering the Playoffs with 22 Playoff points. Winning the regular season title can be driver’s championship run game-changer. Playoff points are crucial to the success a driver has and their ability to advance in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs.  

Heading into this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bell holds a slight advantage over Reddick at the 1.5-mile track. Bell has made two series start posting two top fives and an average finish of 3.5. He finished third in this race last season. Reddick has also made two series starts at Charlotte posting one top 10 and an average finish of 16.5.

Sign of the Times: Youth movement is healthy in the Xfinity Series
Driver's Age (Years)
Tyler Reddick
Christopher Bell
Cole Custer
Austin Cindric
Justin Allgaier
Chase Briscoe #
John H. Nemechek #
Ryan Sieg
Noah Gragson #
Michael Annett
Justin Haley #
Brandon Jones
Average Driver's Age
Twelve drivers can qualify for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs this season and it should be no surprise this season’s batch of talented drivers currently in the top 12 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship standings are the latest frontrunners of the youth movement.

Looking at the current top 12 in the series driver championship standings nine of the 12 (75%) are under the age of 25. The average age of the top 12 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series driver point standings following Dover is 24.2 with five of the 12 drivers either 20-21 years of age. The elders of the top 12 – Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier – are just 32-years old.

The cup of youthfulness runs over in the Xfinity Series this season and Charlotte has been known to spoil the youngsters. Eight drivers have won in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway at or under the age of 25; including Kyle Busch who set the series record for the youngest winner at Charlotte at the age of 19. Busch is joined by Jeff Gordon (20 years old), Rob Moroso (20), Kyle Larson (21), Joey Logano (22), Ryan Blaney (23) Alex Bowman (24), and Austin Dillon (25).