Saturday, May 24, 2014

2014 Coca-Cola Practice Notes: Harvick looks like driver to beat

More Coca-Cola's for Harvick this week? 
It’s hard to make of what we saw in final Coca-Cola 600 practices Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. There’s a dilemma intertwined because you can’t put too much value into what happened in practices because the conditions during the race will be nothing like what they practiced in. They qualified at night on Thursday, but of all the non-restrictor plate races, qualifying might mean the least in NASCAR’s longest race of the season.

This thing is a marathon running through three cycles of changes from daylight, dusk and finishing up at night. Fast should always be fast, but sometimes that’s not the case and this annual Memorial Day weekend race usually has some surprises for those who just focus on the practice speeds.

Of course the speeds are a great starting point and Carl Edwards fast lap at 192.802 mph to top the Saturday’s speed charts in the early session should by no means be discounted. The advice is to simply temper the enthusiasm and explain that our ratings are reflected that way.

Kevin Harvick already came into this week as the 5-to-1 favorite to win based on being blazing fast in every 1.5-mile practice session this season, along with the fact that he’s won two of the past three Coca-Cola 600s. While he only had the 19th fastest lap in the first practice session, most everyone in the garages were saying he’s the car to beat which makes him an automatic upgrade.

During his early practice session, Harvick had the third-best 10-consecutive lap average behind Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Bowyer gets high marks for that alone, and he has won at Charlotte (2012) before as well, but Gordon is the big story here because his nagging back spasms from recent years have resurfaced and forced him to miss the final practice session.

Gordon was considered one of the drivers to beat Sunday based on entire resume this season, but mostly because of his exploits at Las Vegas (9th), Texas (2nd) and Kansas (1st) -- the three 1.5-mile tracks raced on this season. Perfect timing for a throbbing back when having to sit through 600 miles strapped to a seat of any kind, let alone one traveling at 190 mph with 42 other cars coming at all angles at similar speeds.

Because of the Gordon issue, Harvick’s rating is increased even further. If there were about seven serious contenders to win this race coming in and the driver who was near the top of the list has some discomfort while in his office, everyone else slides up past him and their chances to win increase. If Gordon was pain free, he would have been rated No. 2 right below Harvick.

Jimmie Johnson can also be upgraded and based on stellar practices, being hungrier than ever for a win, he should be contending for his seventh Charlotte win when there are only 100 miles remaining. The idea is to at least make it the first 500 miles and then have a chance to win late.

Kyle Busch has never won at Charlotte, but is always well within reach of winning. He had the fastest lap (188.640) during the final practice, but gets downgraded because he had to go to a back-up car after hitting the wall, damaging the right side of his primary car on his second lap of the session. He got about 25 minutes of practice in the back-up car. He’s still going to be strong, but there are more questions now, which raises Harvick and Johnson’s rating even higher.

We should also mention Danica Patrick, who had the third-fastest lap during happy hour and the fifth best 10-consecutive lap average in the first session. When we last saw her, she had her best career finish -- seventh at Kansas -- and she is definitely piquing my interest. I’m not ready to wager on her in any match-ups or odds to win yet, but I’ll certainly have a close eye on her during the race to see how she fares. One more solid outing and she might be a match-up play at the next 1.5-mile track at Kentucky or maybe even at Michigan in three weeks.

Final Driver Ratings Here ..............The Linemakers

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