FANTASY NASCAR PREVIEW: Coca-Cola 600 Preview

This weekend NASCAR stays in North Carolina for our racing action. On the heels of the recently completed All-Star Race, we return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600. This has been the traditional event for Memorial Day weekend for many years now. This 600-mile marathon, the longest race of the season, is the perfect way to celebrate the long holiday weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway sets the stage for this high speed, big stakes battle of survival. CMS is one of the Sprint Cup Series’ many 1.5-mile tri-ovals. It’s very similar to both Atlanta and Texas in many respects, but the oval at Charlotte seems to produce more side-by-side racing than the other intermediate tracks. Horsepower is the name of the game at this high-speed oval, and the durability of the equipment is pushed to the max. The 400 laps run at during the Coca-Cola 600, under the lights, and late into the night take their toll on both the cars and the drivers. In summary, this race is about equipment preservation, driver preservation and fuel preservation. The long green flag runs we typically see in the 600 can often set up a fuel-mileage run to the finish, so crew chiefs have a lot to keep their eyes on in this very long race. The extra 100-miles raced may not seem like a lot, but rest assured it’s enough to make a major difference in who wins and who loses this Sunday night.

This past weekend’s All-Star Race has given us our first look at the facility in Charlotte this season. What transpired in that exhibition event will be a good preview of what we should see this Sunday evening. The 110-lap All-Star Race gave us a sneak peek at the strong teams that could dominate the night once again at this intermediate oval. One thing is for sure, the 600-mile distance provides the teams with several pit stops and chances to improve the handling of their race cars. It will be the team that keeps up with the constantly changing surface and cooling evening air that will be doing a victory burnout at the end of the night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The team that starts out this race the fastest doesn’t always end the evening the fastest, as we have seen many times over the years. We believe that this past weekend’s All-Star Race could be the best indicator of who has the speed early in a run, but over the long green-flag runs it could be entirely different. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, who dominated this past weekend’s 110-lap exhibition event, should show up with the same speed that they had throughout the All-Star Race. But again, that may not add up to victory lane. A late caution flag, pit stops, long green-flag runs etc. could conspire to put others in victory lane.

In combination with what we saw on All-Star weekend, we need to take a brief look at the historical loop stats for the oval at Charlotte. The extended length of this event does play a major factor in the performance of the drivers. So we can’t solely rely on what we saw at CMS last weekend. The short segments of the All-Star Race do nothing to replicate the long green flag runs we’ll see in the Coca-Cola 600. For this race, the loop data from Charlotte Motor Speedway will play a significant role in our fantasy racing picks. The 1.5-mile oval in Charlotte has been a track of streaks the last few years, and that could make it an easily-predictable race this weekend. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 10 years or 20 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

DRIVER AVG FINISH QUALITY PASSES FASTEST LAPS LAPS LED LAPS IN TOP 15 RATING
Jimmie Johnson 12.5 1,031 688 897 6,277 111.6
Kyle Busch 13.3 1,007 478 903 5,624 106.7
Kasey Kahne 10.4 874 667 894 4,725 100.8
Matt Kenseth 14.2 854 379 434 4,680 95.5
Denny Hamlin 13.5 791 239 187 4,837 92.8
Jeff Gordon 17.3 826 280 396 4,562 91.6
Carl Edwards 11.3 848 130 111 4,450 89.6
Greg Biffle 16.4 700 303 437 3,918 88.7
Joey Logano 10.0 620 55 3 2,487 88.4
Brad Keselowski 15.7 447 144 214 2,125 86.5
Kevin Harvick 14.7 743 214 294 4,254 84.7
Kurt Busch 20.1 673 216 453 3,833 84.4
Tony Stewart 16.7 666 191 287 3,508 83.1
Brian Vickers 21.4 402 202 332 2,295 82.6
Clint Bowyer 17.1 605 114 116 3,324 82.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21.7 650 190 162 3,359 81.1
Kyle Larson 20.3 104 32 5 375 80.9
Jamie McMurray 18.5 678 166 167 3,105 80.0
Ryan Newman 17.6 646 82 140 3,489 79.0
Martin Truex Jr. 18.5 651 68 9 3,643 77.0

Chevrolet teams have gotten the best of the competition at Charlotte Motor Speedway for years, but there are recent signs that this could potentially change. Ford and Toyota teams have won two of the last five races at the intermediate oval. The track that bowtie teams dominated for years seems to be becoming a venue of parity. With Denny Hamlin’s victory for the Toyota camp this past weekend, we’ll see if CMS is truly up for grabs this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600. Ford driver Brad Keselowski is the last non-Chevy driver to win at the North Carolina oval and that came in October, 2013. He out-dueled Kasey Kahne to claim his first career win at Charlotte. Given the strength of Penske Racing Fords the past couple seasons on the 1.5-mile tracks, this will be a much anticipated event for that racing stable. Speaking of Kahne, the Hendrick Motorsports veteran is fresh off a strong performance in last week’s All-Star Race. Despite the subpar finish (seventh-place), the No. 5 Chevrolet was one of the fastest cars on the track most of the night. He led 11 laps and was very strong in the first segment.

In this event one year ago, Jimmie Johnson led Chevrolet to victory lane with his thrilling rundown of Matt Kenseth in that Coca-Cola 600. The Hendrick Motorsports star has seven Charlotte victories in his resume and four of those have come in the 600. You could say that Kahne and Johnson have both become sort of specialists at this event. One thing we need to keep in mind this weekend is the potential for the All-Star / Coca-Cola 600 sweep. It has happened in the recent past and is not completely unheard of in the history of NASCAR. In 2010 former Penske Racing star Kurt Busch completed the sweep of All-Star weekend and Coca-Cola 600 weekend with his big victory in 2010s Memorial Day weekend marathon. In 2008 it was Kahne who broke out the broom at Charlotte and swept away both the All-Star and Coca-Cola 600 trophies. Could Denny Hamlin be poised to repeat that scenario this weekend? Given how he ran away from the field in the final segment of the All-Star Race, we would rate those odds as at least a reasonable possibility. We’ll highlight all the drivers that can guide your fantasy racing teams to success this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

 

Kevin Harvick – Harvick is a three-time Charlotte winner, and he’s our most recent winner at this oval with his victory in last October’s Bank of America 500. In addition, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran is a one-time All-Star winner at this oval. He battled at the front all night and finished runner-up in this past Saturday night’s All-Star Race. It would appear Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have things figured out well heading into this Sunday night’s long race at CMS. Harvick led 53 laps and finished runner-up in our last intermediate oval race at Kansas a couple weeks ago. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet will be a powerful contender in the Coca-Cola 600.

Jimmie Johnson – The Hendrick Motorsports star has amassed some impressive numbers over the years at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson leads all active drivers with seven career wins at CMS, including four victories in the Coca-Cola 600. He has led a whopping 1,733 career laps at the Charlotte oval, and that statistic needs absolutely no commentary. In this event one year ago, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet won the pole, led 164 laps and won in a very impressive performance. The six-time champion has been a top performer on these intermediate ovals this season with victories at Atlanta, Fort Worth and Kansas.

Brad Keselowski – The 2012 Sprint Cup champion had a potential victory escape him in this past weekend’s All-Star Race, finishing ninth after winning two segments and leading 49 of the 110 laps. A pit road speeding penalty on the last stop was his undoing. He’ll be hungry to make up for that disappointment with a great run in the Coca-Cola 600. Keselowski’s short Charlotte resume isn’t that impressive, but we must remember he won 2013’s Bank of America 500 for his first career victory at this oval. With over 80 laps led this season on intermediate ovals, the Penske Racing star is one of our top performers on these style tracks.

Denny Hamlin – Historically speaking, Hamlin would appear to be a great start this weekend for the Coca-Cola 600. His strong stats and impressive 92.8 driver rating in the table above beckon a fantasy start. Although the driver of the No. 11 Toyota has never won a points event at the Charlotte oval he still maintains an impressive 58-percent Top-10 rate at this track. Hamlin’s surprising victory in this past weekend’s All-Star Race is hard to ignore. When it came down to the final pit stop before the 10-lap shootout it was Hamlin’s over-the-wall team that got him off pit road first. If this Coca-Cola 600 comes down to pit strategy and a late "money" pit stop, you can’t bet against Hamlin and the No. 11 JGR team. <

Solid Plays – Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

 

Kasey Kahne – As a four-time winner at this track, we have to give Kahne the solid plays tag this week. Despite the slow start to the season, we have to look to what he has accomplished here over the years and how he performed this past Saturday night in the All-Star Race. Kahne is a three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner, so there’s just something intangible about his performances in this particular Charlotte event. With over 1,100 career laps led at this facility, we’re more than familiar with seeing the Hendrick Motorsports star race among the leaders here. Kahne has Top 10s in six of his last seven Charlotte outings, so the No. 5 Chevrolet should be dialed-in for this 600-mile event.

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he enters this weekend as one of the most consistent drivers in the series on intermediate ovals. The Joe Gibbs Racing star just finished fifth in our All-Star Race at Charlotte this past weekend, so that’s proof positive that he’s in top form at these style tracks. Kenseth also finished sixth in our last intermediate oval race at Kansas a couple weekends ago. We expect the driver of the No. 20 Toyota and his high-flying team to come to Charlotte well-prepared this Sunday evening.

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing driver has been one of the strongest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series on the cookie cutter ovals for the last couple seasons. Logano won twice on these style ovals last season and although he’s yet to win on them in 2015 he’s been very strong. Prior to the All-Star break, the driver of the No. 22 Ford led 29 laps and finished fifth at Kansas Speedway. Logano’s Charlotte resume is pretty strong as well. He has seven Top-10 finishes in 12 career starts at the North Carolina Speedway. The bottom line is that Logano is a great outside contender for the win and sure bet for a Top-5 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.

Kurt Busch – Busch’s tenacity was on full display last Saturday night in the All-Star Race. He piloted the No. 41 Chevrolet to 24 laps led and a third-place finish in that exhibition event. The veteran driver was in the mix for the win at the end of the night, and that’s all you can ask. Busch is a one-time winner of this event (2010) but he generally has an up-and-down resume at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His 24-percent Top-10 rate at this oval falls below the line of expectations, but it’s his recent momentum and body of work that most gets our attention prior to the Coca-Cola 600. Busch’s 20 laps led and eighth-place finish at Kansas Speedway recently are good marks to expect this Sunday night.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Charlotte who can provide a solid finish

 

Jeff Gordon – The five-time Charlotte winner will saddle up and try to snap his recent string of bad luck in Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600. A good performance in Sunday’s night’s race will be a good follow up to his Top-5 finish in last weekend’s All-Star Race. Gordon has fourth- and seventh-place finishes in his last two intermediate oval starts at Kansas and Fort Worth. That bodes well for the No. 24 team entering the Coca-Cola 600. His last start at CMS was an outside pole position, 74 laps led and an impressive runner-up finish in last October’s Bank of America 500. He should have no trouble challenging that effort this weekend.

Kyle Busch – The return of the Joe Gibbs Racing star was the talk of last weekend’s All-Star Race. His sixth-place finish in his return was a great effort and a sign of things to come. Busch has some rather impressive loop stats at Charlotte Motor Speedway to never have tasted the thrill of victory at this facility. That’s right, he has never won at this 1.5-mile track, but he’s been painfully close on more than one occasion. In just his last seven visits to the North Carolina speedway alone, Busch has amassed 276 laps led and he’s collected five Top-5 finishes including a runner-up finish. He’s a factor each time we race here, and it’s just a matter of time before all the winning ingredients come together for the No. 18 Toyota team at this oval.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – The NASCAR icon comes to Charlotte this weekend still looking for that elusive victory lane at this oval. While he may not find it at CMS, Earnhardt should still be good for a great run in the Coca-Cola 600. Earnhardt finished in the Top 10 in this past weekend’s All-Star Race. Entering this weekend, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is looking to build on that solid performance. His four Top-5 finishes in the series’ first four intermediate oval events speaks volumes of where the No. 88 team is right now. Earnhardt should have no problem soldiering to another Top-10 finish in this 600-mile marathon.

Martin Truex Jr. – He’s been one of the hottest drivers in the Sprint Cup Series to this point in the season. Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team come to Charlotte a lofty second in the championship standings after posting Top 10s in 10 of the first 11 races of 2015. That momentum should serve them well in the Coca-Cola 600. Truex only has four-career Top-10 finishes at CMS, but that’s of little concern this weekend. His performance to this point on intermediate ovals this season has been stellar. The veteran driver has 98 laps led, one runner-up finish and four Top 10s in the four cookie cutter oval races to-date. A career-best Charlotte finish could be in store for the No. 78 team.

Ryan Newman – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been steady on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. Newman has three Top 10s in the first four events on these style ovals this season. That includes a Top-10 finish in the most recent event on these tracks at Kansas Speedway a couple weeks ago. Newman’s 11-career Top 10s at CMS works out to a subpar 39-percent average, but it’s his recent body of work at this oval that looks optimistic. Three of Newman’s last four visits to the Charlotte oval have netted him Top-10 finishes. He won’t likely challenge for the win, but you can bet Newman will be grabbing every position he can late in this race to forge a Top-10 finish.

A.J. Allmendinger – After finishing a steady 11th in this past week’s Sprint All-Star Race, Allmendinger hopes that the Coca-Cola 600 will be his encore act. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has had a bit of an up-and-down season in 2015, but he has managed two Top-10 finishes to this point and a respectable 19th-place rank in the overall driver standings. The intermediate ovals have been particularly kind, yielding both those Top 10s and an additional Top 15. Considering that Allmendinger’s last Charlotte start resulted in a 12th-place finish last October, he should have some high goals for the Coca-Cola 600. The JTG/Daugherty Racing driver should crack the Top15 this Sunday night.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Tony Stewart – The one-time Charlotte winner will attempt to reverse his recent fortunes with a good outing in the Coca-Cola 600. Smoke has only one Top-10 finish this season and sits a lowly 30th in the driver standings coming into Memorial Day weekend. Unfortunately for the No. 14 Chevrolet team, the Charlotte resume for Stewart isn’t that great. He has only two Top 10s in his last 13 races at this 1.5-mile track. With finishes of 30th-, 33rd-, 24th- and 39th-place at ovals like Las Vegas, Atlanta, Texas and Kansas, we have to look elsewhere for our fantasy racing help at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Carl Edwards – Edwards and the No. 19 team have been struggling to find their identity since they’re a new Sprint Cup Series team. Those struggles have been punctuated by his lone Top-10 finish and lowly 18th-place ranking in the driver standings. Things might not get any better this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Edwards owns some great career numbers here, but his current trends seem to buck all this good history. With only one Top-10 finish in the four intermediate ovals to-date we have to be very reserved about our expectations for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. His 65-percent Top-10 rate at this oval is hard to overlook, but we’re telling you to let it go this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The Roush Fenway Racing driver has a spotty intermediate oval record in tow coming into this weekend’s race. Stenhouse has three finishes outside the Top 20 in his last four races on 1.5-mile ovals. That doesn’t build a lot of confidence in the No. 17 team for the Coca-Cola 600. While the young driver’s Charlotte record is better with three Top-15 finishes in his six career starts at the North Carolina speedway. Still, it’s the recent performance that draws the most scrutiny. We expect a finish around his season average of 23.5 in this Sunday’s 600-mile race. That’s well below our expectations for this driver and team.

Austin Dillon – To say that Dillon’s second season has gotten off to the best of starts would be an understatement. We had much higher expectations for this young driver and team coming into 2015. Dillon has only one Top-10 finish to this point in the season and is a lowly 25th in the driver rankings coming to Charlotte. Intermediate ovals have been particularly troubling with only a pair of 20th-place finishes in the four races to-date. The RCR driver’s two-career Charlotte starts have been decent enough with 16th- and 13th-place efforts last season. However, the performance level of this team doesn’t inspire hope of any improvement on those numbers this Sunday evening.

Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.

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