|Big party last season for Kevin Harvick's crew at Charlotte|
There is a special knack for winning NASCAR’s longest race of the season, because of the many changing conditions caused by the race starting in daylight (6:16 pm ET), running through dusk and finishing up at night in the much cooler temperatures. The team that can adapt to the rapidly changing track the quickest has the edge, and the driver who can relay what’s happening in the car during those changes the best has an even bigger edge. Lately, it’s been Harvick.
In both of his Coca-Cola 600 wins, he used every part of the lengthy race distance to his advantage leading only two laps in a green-white-checker finish in 2011, and then only 28 of the 400 laps last year. He got better as he went on in those races and it's quite possible with the power his new No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team has routinely given him, that he‘ll get off to a much better start.
One of the other reasons that Harvick is favored over everyone else is the competition. It’s more balanced than ever while six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson searches for speed and his first win of the season. Johnson has been favored at every Charlotte race after winning his first Coca-Cola 600 in 2003 that started a run of taking five-of-six Charlotte events, including three straight Coca-Cola 600’s. He has six points-paying wins at Charlotte, but hasn’t been to victory lane there since 2009 (not counting his four All-Star wins).
Out of mere respect for his past body work at Charlotte and other 1.5-mile tracks, he’s listed at 6-to-1 odds this week. Also factoring in his low odds is Johnson’s driving ability, his all-business mentality and not being able to keep crafty crew chief Chad Knaus baffled for too long in how to make the No. 48 go faster. They will start to click soon. The betting public knows it. Every driver in the garage knows it and Johnson himself knows it.
Prior to this race last season, the Joe Gibbs Racing team had a huge edge on all the down-force tracks, but the two-star performers - Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch -- didn’t have strong Coca-Cola outings like we saw in their wins at Las Vegas, Fontana, Texas and Kansas. This season, it’s been much more equal with an edge being given to the Penske duo of Joey Logano (8-to-1) and Brad Keselowski (8-to-1). Logano won at Texas – the track most similar to Charlotte – while also finishing fourth at Las Vegas and Kansas. Keselowski won at Vegas, Jeff Gordon won at Kansas and Kyle Busch won at Fontana again – four down-force tracks, four different winners.
Gordon (8-to-1) will be making his 22nd Coca-Cola 600 start and we can use his strong second-place finish at Texas last month as a great indicator he might be able win his sixth race at Charlotte and fourth Coca-Cola 600. He last won this race during his magical 13-win season in 1998. His last win overall at Charlotte came in the fall of 2007.
It’s surprising that Kyle Busch (8-to-1) hasn’t won at Charlotte yet because he’s been so consistently good there over the past seven years with two runner-ups, four third-place finishes, a fourth and two fifths. He’s been eighth or better in 11 of his last 13 starts, and like Gordon and Logano, we can use his good showing at Texas (third) as a reference.
Kasey Kahne’s (8-to-1) third-place finish at Kansas two weeks ago was his best of the season, and Charlotte has been one of his best tracks over his career, totaling four wins. He was second in both races last season and led 20 laps in last week’s All-Star Race.
Be sure to check back Saturday afternoon when we’ll have our driver ratings, aimed to help bettors and fantasy players' weekly strategy, posted after the two practices sessions. Qualifying is Thursday night under the lights with no activity scheduled for the Cup series on Friday. Right now, the Penske cars look like the best value on the board with Kahne being close, while Carl Edwards (20-to-1) looks like the best long-shot value. If you are looking for Jamie McMurray to complete the Charlotte sweep after winning the All-Star Race, the LVH will give you 60-to-1 odds. Seven drivers have completed the sweep with the last being Kurt Busch, who this year is racing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 back-to-back, in 2010. McMurray won his first career race at Charlotte as a replacement driver for Sterling Marlin in 2002 and won again in 2010.
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