Gearing up for NASCAR’s longest race

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The Coca-Cola 600 is the ultimate test of man and machine. 600 miles and 400 laps for sometimes five hours around Charlotte Motor Speedway can take its toll.

Plus, being on Memorial Day Weekend, which culminates in the end of the best racing day of the year honoring our armed forces, is a priority for the sport as well. Going from day to night, the track will change, and the one who can keep up with the changing conditions will most likely be in victory lane when the checkered flies. Being one of the crowned jewels of NASCAR, a win in this race will do wonders in a driver’s quest to racing immortality and the Hall of Fame.

WHAT: Coca Cola 600 (400 laps, 600 miles, four stages of 100 laps each)

WHEN: Sunday, May 28, 2017. Green flag scheduled at 6:16 p.m. ET on FOX (radio on PRN)

WHERE: Charlotte Motor Speedway, 1.5-mile asphalt quad-oval in Concord, N.C.

FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. (9-2) and Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick (6-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Photo: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images

Martin Truex Jr. dominated this event one year ago—no, I mean dominated. He led 392 of the 400 laps in one of the most obliterating performances in NASCAR history. The race was regarded as “boring” by most around the NASCAR world due to the lack of lead changes and action on track, but the No. 78 was just in another zip code. If 2017 has been any indication, it looks as if Truex Jr. and co. will be tough to beat once again, as they’re favorites to repeat.


THE FIELD

Kevin Harvick will lead the field to the green flag, as he and the No. 4 team won their series-leading third pole of the season with a lap of 193.424 mph (27.918 seconds). Harvick has won his race twice, in2011 and 2013, and has won once each in the All-Star Race and the fall Charlotte race. He also has seven top five’s and 14 top 10’s in his career at the 1.5-mile track.

Last week’s winner, Kyle Busch, was second-fastest, followed by Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones. Rounding out the top 10 starters are Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski. Other notables include Jimmie Johnson in 14th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 19th, Joey Logano in 23rd and Kyle Larson, who didn’t get a chance to qualify due to not making it through inspection, in 39th in his No. 42 Chevrolet.


VHT COMES TO CMS

The sticky substance traction compound that has been used at Bristol Motor Speedway’s low line has made its way to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s high line. Track officials have been applying the compound feverishly to the upper lane of the track in hopes of improving the racing that hindered the All-Star Race last weekend at the very same track.

“I’m wondering what it’s going to be like when we’re running 200 miles an hour into the top lane and hoping it’s hot enough to stick,” Ryan Blaney told reporters in the CMS media center, as he compared the VHT at Bristol down low to the VHT at Charlotte up high. “So that’s going to be a little sketchy at first, but, like I said before, I thought NASCAR had to make a move on that side of it to get us off the bottom of the race track or at least give us options.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. also mentioned on his weekly Dirty Mo Radio podcast, The Dale Jr. Download, that the track applied VHT to the bottom lane in advance of the All-Stat Race for reasons unbenounced to the public. Now up high, the racing should improve.


ROWDY LOOKS TO SWEEP

Kyle Busch is looking to make it two in a row and win the Coca-Cola 600 coming off the heels of his All-Star victory. In his career at Charlotte, Rowdy boasts ten top fives, 15 top 10’s and an average running position of 9.948, second best in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

“It’s certainly nice to just have the speed right now,” Busch told reporters after qualifying second in his No. 18 Toyota. “It showed up when we unloaded it right off the truck. We were pretty quick the first (practice) session. Then guys kind of caught up to us a little bit through the practice. Shows that we’ve got performance right now, so we just got to put it all together. It’s a long, long day. Starting up front doesn’t necessarily mean anything right now.”

The win last weekend was the 2015 champion’s first in a Cup car at CMS. Now, he wants a points-paying victory and to put his name along with the list of seven drivers who have won both the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year. They include Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Jeff Gordon (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2003), Kasey Kahne (2008) and most recently, Kurt Busch (2010).


AN ADDED STAGE

10 days ago, NASCAR announced that this race would be run in four stages instead of the previously scheduled three. The race will have four 100-lap stages, making it easy to follow along for casual fans. This move also means that the race will be worth more total points than any other race on the MENCS schedule, including the prestigious Daytona 500.

Photo: Jerry Markland/NASCAR via Getty Images

“The stage racing format is delivering more dramatic moments over an entire race, fueling tremendous racing action this season,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said in a press release on May 15, 2017. “With a fourth stage added to the Coca-Cola 600, the historic event will have another layer of strategy for teams, and even more excitement within the race for fans.”


WHO WINS NEXT?

Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the list goes on. All these drivers have yet to win a race this season—and time is ticking away. We have had eight different winners in 11 races.

Who would’ve thought that Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would find the winner’s circle before these big names, former champions in the sport that have contended for wins with relative ease for the better part of a decade (for some). Playoff spots are filling up, and if these drivers don’t earn wins soon, they could be left on the outside looking in.


PREDICTION

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You guessed it, I’m sticking to my guns as stated on Victory Lane this week and going with the four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner and eight-time winner at Charlotte, Jimmie Johnson. These are the type of races that Johnson and the No. 48 team thrive in. When everyone else ends up making mistakes throughout the 600-miler, the No. 48 usually doesn’t.