Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IOctober 8, 2013

Complete Preview for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte

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    Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the fifth race of the Chase.
    Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the fifth race of the Chase.Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    The fifth race of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship takes place under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The event will mark the second time this season that the series has run a race in Charlotte.

    Through the first four races of the postseason, Matt Kenseth holds a three-point lead over five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. Following a win in Kansas last weekend, Kevin Harvick sits third in the standings, 25 points out of the lead.

    With more than half of the championship contenders more than 40 points out of the lead, Charlotte is clearly a make-or-break race for all 13 Chase drivers.

    For some, it is a must-win situation just to stay in contention while, for others, a win could separate them from the rest of the field.

    So which drivers are the ones to keep the closest eye on, and which stories are making the most headlines? Join us as we get you set for the fifth race of the playoffs, under the lights of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Charlotte Race Information

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    Charlotte Motor Speedway is host to the only night race in the Chase.
    Charlotte Motor Speedway is host to the only night race in the Chase.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The fifth race of the 2013 Chase for the Championship takes place at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Here are all of the important details.

    Race: Bank of America 500

    Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (one-and-a-half mile quad oval)

    Distance: 334 laps to make up 501 miles

    Green Flag: Saturday night, 7:30 p.m. ET

    TV: ABC

    Defending Race Winner: Clint Bowyer

    First Race: June 19, 1960 (won by Joe Lee Johnson)

Breaking Down Charlotte Motor Speedway

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Charlotte Motor Speedway has been on the Sprint Cup schedule since 1960. It has hosted two events annually since the track's inception (in 1961 Charlotte actually hosted four events).

    Charlotte has hosted one of the 10 playoff races each season since the inception of the Chase in 2004.

    Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the faster mile-and-a-half tracks on the circuit. Earlier this season, Denny Hamlin set a new track record with a blistering lap of 195.624 miles per hour. Only speeds at Atlanta and Texas have topped that among tracks of similar size.

    Sixteen current Sprint Cup drivers (including part-timers Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte) have scored at least one win at the facility. Jimmie Johnson is the leader among active competitors with six victories on the speedway while Jeff Gordon is next with five.

    Since the track was repaved in 2006, only Kasey Kahne (four) and Kevin Harvick (two) have posted multiple victories in Charlotte.

    Starting up front has been a key to victory in recent years. In 15 of the last 20 events held on NASCAR's unofficial home track, the race's eventual winner started the day inside the top 10.

Top Storylines at Charlotte

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    Kevin Harvick scored the win at Kansas in the most recent Sprint Cup Series race.
    Kevin Harvick scored the win at Kansas in the most recent Sprint Cup Series race.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick Wins in Kansas, Looks to Repeat in Charlotte

    Kevin Harvick enters Saturday night's race in Charlotte as both the most recent winner at Charlotte as well as the most recent winner in the series overall. Following his dominating performance at Kansas on Sunday, Harvick looks to continue his hot streak at NASCAR's home track, where he won the Coca-Cola 600 earlier in the season.

    With his most recent victory, Harvick jumped from a tie for fourth in the standings into third place and cut his deficit by 14 points. He now sits just 25 markers out of the top spot in pursuit of his first series championship.


    Top Two in the Standings Separated by Just 3 Points

    Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson enter Saturday's race at Charlotte as the top-two drivers in the standings, and there is not a whole lot of space between them. Kenseth holds a three-point edge on the former five-time series champion.

    Both drivers are multi-time winners at Charlotte, and strong runs by both could separate them even further from the rest of their championship competitors.


    New Faces Set to Make Series Debut at Charlotte

    When the Sprint Cup Series takes the green flag at Charlotte, it will mark the debut for two young drivers. Nationwide Series regulars Kyle Larson and Brian Scott will both race at the sport's top level for the first time.

    Larson, who will drive full-time in 2014 in the No. 42 car for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, will pilot Harry Scott's No. 51 car. He is receiving sponsorship from Target.

    Scott, meanwhile, will be behind the wheel of the No. 33 car for a team that receives support from Richard Childress Racing, Scott's Nationwide Series team.


Meeting the Drivers Atop the Point Standings

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    Matt Kenseth leads the standings by three points.
    Matt Kenseth leads the standings by three points.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    After four races of the 2013 Chase for the Championship, only three points separate the top two drivers in the standings. Behind them, the rest of the field is looking to close the gap and get back into contention. Here is a look at the current top five in points.

    1. Matt Kenseth: Matt Kenseth continues to lead the standings as he has done for the duration of the postseason. His lead is just three points, and he goes into Charlotte coming off his worst performance in the Chase. A late-race accident caused him to finish 15th in Charlotte earlier in the year after spending the majority of the race inside the top five.

    2. Jimmie Johnson: Jimmie Johnson enters Charlotte just three points out of the top spot. He is the only driver to finish inside the top 10 in all four Chase races thus far. Once the dominant driver at Charlotte, Johnson has scored just one win at the facility since 2005. Four of his last five trips to the mile-and-a-half facility have resulted in finishes outside the top 10.

    3. Kevin Harvick: Following a win in Kansas, Kevin Harvick is now third in the standings, only 25 points behind Kenseth. He gained 14 points thanks to his win and goes into Charlotte as the most recent Sprint Cup Series winner at the speedway. If there is such a thing as momentum, than Harvick currently has the most.

    4. Jeff Gordon: Very quietly, Jeff Gordon has kept himself in contention for the championship. He sits in fourth but is just 32 points out of the top spot. Gordon has yet to win in the 2013 season but appears to be getting closer. He enters Charlotte having posted a top-10 finish in six of the last seven events.

    5. Kyle Busch: A hard crash in Kansas knocked Kyle Busch from third to fifth in the standings. The 34th-place finish saw him lose 23 points to Kenseth. He now has a 35-point deficit to overcome if he is to win his first series championship. Charlotte has been hit-or-miss for Busch over his career. He has 11 top-10 finishes in 19 starts, but every other finish was outside the top 20.

Favorites at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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    Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are two of the favorites in Charlotte.
    Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson are two of the favorites in Charlotte.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Kasey Kahne

    While it appears that the series championship may be too far out of reach for Kasey Kahne, he still enters the race in Charlotte as one of the clear favorites. Kahne is a four-time winner at this track, and all four have come since it was repaved in 2006. Kahne has posted four consecutive top-10 finishes in Charlotte and has amassed 11 for his career in his 19 starts.


    Jimmie Johnson

    Though he has won just once at Charlotte since the track's repaving in 2006, Johnson is still one of the favorites. A six-time winner at the facility, Johnson has also scored a total of 15 top-10 finishes in his 24 career starts. His 1,439 laps led are the most among active drivers, and only four times in his career Johnson failed to lead at least one lap in a Charlotte race.


    Jeff Gordon

    Right behind Johnson on the active-wins list at Charlotte is his teammate Jeff Gordon. Gordon is a five-time winner at this speedway, but he has not made a visit to Victory Lane since this race back in 2007. Gordon has posted 21 top-10 finishes in 41 starts. He comes into Charlotte having posted six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts overall. Gordon is still seeking his first win of the year.


    Kyle Busch

    Kyle Busch has never scored a win in Charlotte, but he has still found success. In 19 starts, he has scored 11 top-10 finishes. Inexplicably though, his other eight starts at this track are all finishes of 25th or worse. Busch had one of the stronger cars the last time the series visited Charlotte until an engine failure ended his day in 38th place.


    Matt Kenseth

    The current championship leader, Matt Kenseth, is a two-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway, most recently in the fall of 2011. In total, Kenseth has scored a top 10 in half of his 28 appearances on the mile-and-a-half speedway. He enters Saturday night's race having won a series best seven times already this season. Four of those wins have come on tracks of similar size as Charlotte.




Charlotte Predictions

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    It has been a miserable Chase for Kasey Kahne.
    It has been a miserable Chase for Kasey Kahne.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Any number of drivers are potential winners in Charlotte. Prior to the track's repaving in 2006, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that Jimmie Johnson would end the day carrying the checkered flag. In recent years, the playing field has been a little more balanced.

    In the last 13 races held at Charlotte Motor Speedway there have been 11 different winners. Seven of those 11 drivers are current Chase contenders.

    Recent history says Kevin Harvick is a smart pick this weekend. He is coming off a win in Kansas and has already visited Victory Lane at Charlotte once this year. His overall consistency in Charlotte, however, is lacking which makes him a questionable choice.

    Johnson and Matt Kenseth would also be safe picks. They both typically run well here and are the current top two in the standings.

    It is another driver, however, that we like for this weekend's race. The 2013 Chase has been nothing short of disappointing for Kasey Kahne. His best finish thus far in the playoffs was his 12th-place effort in Chicago four weeks ago.

    He is last in the standings among the 13 Chase contenders, but one would have to believe that he has to turn it around sooner than later.

    Charlotte is the ideal track for Kahne to do just that. He is a four-time winner here.  If not for some late-race pit strategy that went against him, he appeared to be on his way to making it a fifth win earlier this year.

    The points battle will continue to be tight once the series leaves Charlotte as both Kenseth and Johnson should end up with top-10 finishes, but it will be a different Hendrick Motorsports driver that ultimately crosses the finish line first.

    Charlotte Winner: Kasey Kahne