|Kasey Kahne won last years Coca-Cola 600|
Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be as different as night and day. That’s because the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ longest – and, perhaps, most grueling – race begins in the late afternoon heat and ends in darkness (FOX, PRN Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, 6 p.m. EDT). The 600-mile race comprised of 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout is an exercise in strategy.
Run fast enough to keep track position when the sun shines but be able to adjust for the nighttime finish. The race’s extra 100 miles is taxing on both engines and driver concentration.
It’s a marathon but no longer can a driver bide his time and wait to make a late charge.
"You can’t go into this race thinking, ‘Oh, we’re just going to cruise at the beginning and wait for the track to come to us,’" said Jeff Gordon, a three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner. "That used to exist but it doesn’t anymore. You start charging from the drop of the green flag."
No team has a better record at Charlotte Motor Speedway than Hendrick Motorsports. The organization has won 17 points-paying races – nine more than the next-best Roush Fenway Racing and Petty Enterprises.
Kasey Kahne won last year’s Coca-Cola 600 – his third – in his first season in HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet.
Teammate Gordon’s 1994 Coca-Cola 600 win was the first of his 87 Sprint Cup victories. Gordon is the last to win both race and championship in the same seasons (1997-98).
Johnson has won the Coca-Cola 600 three times with six Charlotte victories overall. His next win will make him the track’s all-time winner, breaking a record he shares with NASCAR Hall of Fame members Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
As further proof that Johnson is the driver to beat in Sunday’s race – the first with NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car – the Californian won his record fourth NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race last weekend, coming from deep in the field to dispatch Kahne.
Johnson ranks No. 1 in five Loop Data categories including Driver Rating (111.7), Average Running Position (7.9) and Fastest Laps Run (544).
Johnson’s All-Star victory may herald the No. 48 Chevrolet team’s return to Charlotte dominance. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus last won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2005 – before the track was repaved.
"It’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again and we’re knocking on the door," Johnson said in his post-all-star race interviews.
Solid Season, Experience Gives Junior Optimism
You could say Dale Earnhardt Jr. has some catching up to do.He’s winless at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne boast a combined 15 victories.
The track hasn’t spun Junior out. But he hasn’t quite conquered the 1.5-mile layout either.
Earnhardt’s record is so-so: five top fives and 11 top 10s in 26 races. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has fashioned a trio of top-10 finishes, including a sixth in last year’s Coca-Cola 600. He nearly won the race in 2011, losing the lead to Kevin Harvick after his fuel cell ran dry during a green-white-checkered finish.
Earnhardt’s Charlotte statistics aren’t stellar: Driver Rating of 78.8 (18th-best); Average Finish of 18.8; Average Running Position of 20.2 (25th-best) and 487 Quality Passes (17th-most).
Yet if the season to date is any indication, this could be the May that Earnhardt finally busts open the gates to Charlotte’s Victory Lane.
Earnhardt has finished second twice, at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway, and led the points standings. Fourth in current points, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet hasn’t ranked outside the top five this season. He finished seventh in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Fifteen seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has taught Earnhardt patience – a huge asset in approaching the four-plus hour Coca-Cola 600.
"I think the older you get the smarter you become, and the better you are at making decisions and understanding what are the battles you need to fight and what battles aren’t battles you need to be in the middle of," Earnhardt said a week ago.
Hamlin, Stewart On Similar Chase Trajectories
Denny Hamlin’s on the right track. Tony Stewart needs to get untracked. That’s the situation for both drivers in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, a race neither has won.
Hamlin returned from the disabled list earlier this month at Darlington Raceway and finished second in his first full race since suffering back injuries in late March. He needs to reach the top 20 in order to parlay one or more victories into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Wild Card.
So far, so good. Hamlin ranked 31st, 76 points out of 20th entering the Bojangles’ Southern 500. He cut the deficit to 61 points and now ranks 27th.
Hamlin finished second in both of last year’s Charlotte races and rides a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes.
Things are bit more complicated for Stewart. He’s closer to Wild Card territory – 21st, five points behind Jeff Burton – but has yet to build momentum. In fact, this is the three-time champion’s worst start since becoming a Sprint Cup competitor.
Stewart never has entered the season’s 12th race without a top-five finish. His single top 10 – eighth at Phoenix – is an 11-race low. Until this year, Stewart’s worst 11-race points ranking was 18th in 2010 but he recovered to make the Chase.
Summer, when temperatures rise and track surfaces become slick, is prime time for Stewart. The 47-time Sprint Cup winner counts at least one victory at all but one of the tracks (Kentucky) remaining before the post season begins.
Stewart has won at Charlotte, but not in the spring. He has just one Coca-Cola 600 top-10 finish – sixth in 2007 – in his most recent eight races. His best finish, third, came in 2001. Stewart’s next top-five finish will be his 175th and will tie Bill Elliott for 17th on the Sprint Cup all-time list.
‘Long’ Shot: Stenhouse Hopes Greatness Awaits
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 12th in the season-opening Daytona 500, a result that would come to define his consistent rookie season. Stenhouse, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings leader, continued to hammer away at the top 15 and top 20.
Still, a win – and a top-10 finish – await. And if he gets it this Sunday during NASCAR’s longest race, he’ll join an exclusive and illustrious list of drivers who earned their first win in the Coca-Cola 600.
That list includes David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears and David Reutimann. Four of those drivers – Pearson, Gordon, Kenseth and Labonte – went on to win NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships later in their respective careers.
Stenhouse leads the rookie standings by one point over Danica Patrick, who looks to become the first female driver to score a top-10 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
Patrick ran last year’s 600, finishing 30th. She became the second female to race in the Coca-Cola 600, joining Janet Guthrie, who accomplished the feat in 1976 (she finished 15th). Guthrie finished ninth at Charlotte’s 500-mile race in 1977.
For Busch, Charlotte ‘Cup’ Half Empty
All Kyle Busch does is win, win, win – no matter what. Unless, of course, it’s a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Busch nabbed NASCAR national series win No. 11 last week at Charlotte in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event, pushing his career total to 113 victories. Inexplicably, not one of those has come driving a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car at Charlotte.
He’s come close, as his Charlotte top-five percentage of 44 percent would suggest (eight top fives in 18 races). The only track where Busch boasts more top fives is Richmond, with 12. Busch’s best Charlotte finish is second, which he did in the October race in both 2010 and 2011. His best Coca-Cola 600 finish was third, which he accomplished three times – most recently in 2012.
Figure on a win coming sooner than later. He has scored top fives in five of the last six races and has only one finish outside the top 10 in the last 11 Charlotte events.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
If the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is any indication, expect another highly competitive race come Sunday. There were 24 green flag passes for the lead during the all-star race, an event best since the inception of NASCAR’s loop data in 2005. … Trevor Bayne returns to the seat of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford on Sunday. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has four starts this season, with a best finish of 18th at Texas. … Jamie McMurray, who dominated last Saturday’s Sprint Showdown with a perfect Driver Rating of 150.0, earned his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte on Oct. 13, 2002, in his second career start. … There have been nine different winners in the last nine Charlotte races. … Bobby Labonte will attempt to make his 700th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start on Sunday.
- NASCAR Media Services