Storylines To Follow
From The Light Into The Night
The Coca-Cola 600 is unique unto itself. Not only is it the longest race of the 36 Sprint Cup Series runs each year, it’s also one of the most challenging. When the green flag drops today the sun will be out, but 600 miles later when the checkered flag waves, the race will complete under the darkness of night. In-between, the 1.5-mile oval will undergo a transformation as the track temperatures decreases and rubber collects on the surface. As such, crew chiefs will have their work cut out for them to keep up with the ever-changing track conditions. It’s a common occurrence to see drivers that were strong early on slide towards the back as the laps click by, and conversely, drivers who were struggling in the daylight get stronger once the sun sets.
Back-To-Back Back Flips
A week after his convincing win in NASCAR’s annual non-points showcase, known as the All-Star Race, Carl Edwards enters the weekend looking to complete the Charlotte sweep. Although he’ll be driving a different car than the one he drove last Saturday, thanks to an ill-advised trip through the infield. The points leader has shown no signs of letting up, posting the second-quickest speed in Thursday’s lone practice session, then backing that up by qualifying third.
Starting Up Front and Looking To Say There
There are a few drivers starting up near the front today that need a good finish to either turnaround their once promising season or to jumpstart what to date has been a year filled with disappointment and mediocre results. Among them are polesitter Brad Keselowski, the guy starting next to him on the front row, AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton who will lineup fifth and David Reutimann, who will start seventh.
Tires and Track Position
As we’ve seen the last few weeks, track position is everything when it comes to winning. The majority of the time track position is directly related to how many tires you get when you hit pit road. At Darlington during a caution with less than 10 laps to go, Regan Smith stayed out while everyone ahead of him pitted. The next week at Dover, Matt Kenseth, who was running fifth at the time, took two tires with 34 laps to go and jumped to atop the leader board. Due to clean air and no traffic, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion drove away for his second win of 2011.
The game has changed in NASCAR, and taking two tires, or any tires for that matter, is no longer a given. It’s a situation that’s thrown crew chiefs for a loop. Most notably, Chad Knaus, who strongly adheres to the principle that if you have the opportunity to put four fresh Goodyear’s on your car, you do. Except that strategy is no longer the right one and it likely won’t be the winning one tonight.
● Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will be making his Sprint Cup debut driving in place of the still recovering Trevor Bayne. Stenhouse qualified the Wood Brothers Ford in the ninth position.
● Casey Mears, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and David Reutimann all picked up their first career win in NASCAR’s longest race. For Mears it was his only Sprint Cup victory to date.
● Carl Edwards is looking to become the ninth driver to pull off the All-Star Race/Coca-Cola 600 sweep. The eight guys that have accomplished the feat are Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Jeff Gordon (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2003), Kasey Kahne 2008, and Kurt Busch (2010).
● After repeatedly chastising his crew the last few weeks, Kurt Busch has promised to be more polite towards them on the radio. I give it 30 laps before Busch breaks his promise, cues up the radio and starts to vent about the lack of speed in his Pennzoil Dodge.
Charlotte Motor Speedway Track Records (Active)
Driver Wins: Jimmie Johnson (6)
Owner Wins: Hendrick Motorsports (16)
Manufacturer Wins: Chevrolet (38)
Average Finish: Joey Logano (8.5)
Laps Led: Jimmie Johnson (1,386)
Top-5s: Mark Martin (18)
Top-10s: Mark Martin (23)
1. Carl Edwards
After his memorable post-race celebration that destroyed the frontend of his Ford Fusion, Carl Edwards will be piloting a different car in the 600. But according to Edwards and crew chief Bob Osborne, the car they’ve brought to the track is as good as the one that won the All-Star Race in dominant fashion. Judging by how fast they were in Thursday’s practice, it’s hard to argue with them.
2. Kyle Busch
Although Kyle Busch finished runner-up to Edwards in the All-Star Race, crew chief Dave Rogers elected to bring a different chassis to the track this weekend. The reason I like Busch to run well tonight is he’ll be driving the same car he raced at Texas. That night he ran in the top-five all race before a loose wheel and a subsequent unscheduled pit stop saw him finish in the 16th position. Good driver + Good car = Good shot to get win number three on the year.
3. Jimmie Johnson
There was a time when Charlotte Motor Speedway was known as the house that Jimmie built. That time however has come and gone and he’s no longer regarded as the heavy favorite like he once was, the five-time defending champ and six-time Charlotte winner is still more than formidable.
The same car David Reutimann will be wheeling today is the same one he drove to a third-place finish last Saturday night. What bodes well for “The Franchise’s” chances tonight is that car was at its best during long green-flag runs, which are a regular occurrence during the course of the 600-mile marathon. If this race stays green in the latter stages, it could play right into his wheelhouse. Also note, Reutimann was fastest in yesterday’s final practice.
The Official Racing Geek Pick
You can’t ignore the fact that Jack Roush owned cars have clearly been superior this year on mile-and-a-half tracks. Carl Edwards took the checkered flag at Las Vegas, Matt Kenseth went to the winner’s circle at Texas, and last weekend they winning everything there was to win, highlighted by Edwards’ dominate victory.
I see no reason to think the Roush Armada won’t again be strong tonight with Edwards, Kenseth and Greg Biffle all having a legitimate shot at leaving with the hardware. Heck who knows, maybe even David Ragan will come out of leftfield and be the next driver in a long line of them who scored their first career win in the 600?
But because he’s the points leader and out of respect for how consistently fast he’s been just about every week this season, my pick to win tonight is Carl Edwards.
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media/Getty Images