Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600
Born as NASCAR’s answer to the Indianapolis 500, the World 600, as it was called, was more endurance race than stock-car race back in NASCAR’s early days.
Today, it’s one of NASCAR’s “crown jewels,” and it's become a game of strategy and patience.
David Caraviello of NASCAR.com makes the case that last week's Sprint All-Sar Race is indication of what to expect this weekend in Charlotte, noting that Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray is riding a wave of momentum and as a result is the favorite Sunday.
The All-Star race was a series of short runs. The Coca-Cola 600 is comprised of long runs. Much longer runs. That plays into the hands of the veteran driver who knows how to take care of his car and the seasoned crew chief who knows what critical adjustment needs to be made to the car toward the end of the race.
It also takes both strength and stamina to win. At four-plus hours, it is the longest time behind the wheel that these drivers will experience all year long. And it’s a dozen trips over the wall for the pit crew.
“When you really think about it, it’s probably one of the longest professional racing stints for a single driver in the world,” said Brian Vickers, who drives the No. 55 for Michael Waltrip Racing and has driven in several 24 hour sports car events.
“Nowhere in those 24 hour races do you see one driver in a car for four or more hours straight. Typically, they’re only in the car for one hour. To that extent, even though the race is not as long as say the 24 hour races, the time you are in the car continuously is longer.”
Strategy and patience. Remember that. It’s often that these long races can come down to fuel mileage. So after nearly 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway, it all could come down to who had the lighter touch to his right foot.
Or it could end up in a green-white-checkered finish, as NASCAR has been fond of engineering in recent years.
Settle in for a long night of racing. But be sure you’re awake for the finish, because people will be talking about it come Monday.
By the Numbers: Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Coca Cola 600
The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, May 25
The Time: 6 p.m. ET
TV: Fox, 5:30 p.m. ET
Radio: Performance Racing Network PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 600 miles (400 laps)
Defending race winner: Kevin Harvick
Defending pole winner: Denny Hamlin
Race Record: Jeff Gordon 160.306mph (10/11/1999)
Qualifying Record: Denny Hamlin 195.624mph (05/26/2013)
Races Won from the Pole: 14
Last Race Won from the Pole: Jimmie Johnson (10/17/2009)
Youngest Winner: Jeff Gordon (05/29/1994—22 years, nine months, 25 days)
Oldest Winner: Cale Yarborough (10/06/1985—46 years, six months, nine days)
All-time Winner: Bobby Allison, Jimmie Johnson and Darrell Waltrip (six)
All-time Winner (active): Jimmie Johnson (six)
Key Storylines This Weekend
Can McMurray Sweep
The last driver to sweep both the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600 was Kurt Busch back in 2010. Jamie McMurray’s Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS looked hard to beat last Saturday night. But, as mentioned earlier, that race was a series of short runs.
Can crew chief Keith Rodden give McMurray a car to go the length? And can Rodden, who is a newer crew chief, make the right decisions when the time comes?
Team Penske MIA
Last weekend, both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski had forgettable race nights at the Sprint All-Star Race. Logano wrecked early, and Keselowski never had a handle on his race car.
This duo was more like the dynamic duo at the start of the season—which proves how fluid this sport is. Earlier in the season, they both would have been the odds-on favorites, as both have won on similar tracks (Keselowski at Las Vegas; Logano at Texas) already this season.
However, these two have been a bit of a question mark, especially in regard to consistency.
Both drivers are young. Logano turns 24 Saturday, and Keselowski is 29, so they should have no problem with the long night ahead of them. Will they have the cars to take them to Victory Lane, though?
Despite Busch’s error during practice earlier in the week that sent him into the Turn 2 wall at Indy, he still has a good chance at success. With his Andretti Autosport team unable to make repairs in time for Sunday’s Indy 500, Busch will start in teammate Marco Andretti’s backup car, modified to mimic Busch’s original—and now destroyed—ride.
However, he still has to make his way through the start of the Indianapolis 500. Its turbulent tempest is designed to take the weak out of the race early on. He says he’s ready for it.
Some, including me, might say that had there been just a few more laps in the All-Star race, Kevin Harvick would have easily made it past McMurray and got the win.
Not only is Harvick the hottest driver in the series at the moment, he also comes to a track that, at one point, used to be his least favorite and is now among his most preferred.
"I really tried to stop having a bad attitude coming into this particular race weekend and just trying to get through it,” Harvick said. “I started trying to figure out what I needed to do to get better at this particular race track. I watched the guys who have had success here in the past and studied a little bit to try and figure out steering, throttle, brakes and different techniques that the guys that were winning the races were using and tried to adapt that.
“Changing my attitude has helped the most and now Charlotte has become like any of the other race tracks where you enjoy showing up and the challenges of trying to figure out a different style of race track and how to make your car handle."
There appears to be no stopping this team. It's moved past the problems it faced earlier in the season, which really were not of its own making. And now that Harvick’s had his "Charlotte Motor Speedway attitude adjustment," the No. 4 car could be the first repeat winner of the 600 since Jimmie Johnson (2003 to 2005).
Drivers to Watch
He is the driver everybody loves to hate. Apparently, that’s what success does to you. And Johnson (above) says he doesn’t mind the boos when he gets introduced. Johnson told Autoweek:
I learned a long time ago that it's hard to make everybody happy. I have seen in the last three or four years and there are plenty of markers to show it in the fan base that has shifted heavily that there are a lot of very avid 48 fans that are out there. With that said, I'm sure there are some that just don't like us. That's fine, that's cool.
Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of those tracks where JJ has a remarkable record, with six wins and 12 top-fives. This place is Jimmie’s House until someone else comes along to top his record.
Johnson’s teammate broke his winless streak on a different 1.5-mile track (Kansas) after weeks of close-but-no-cigar finishes. It was long overdue. One win, however, is definitely not enough for the four-time Cup champion or his Hendrick Motorsports teammates now that they've tasted the sweetness of victory.
The long race may present a physical challenge to the 42-year-old Gordon, who might be in better shape than most 20-somethings. Leave it to crew chief Alan Gustafson to give the five-time CMS winner (nine pole starts) a car he can be comfortable driving for 600 miles.
Once his least favorite track and now among his favorites, Harvick will attack Charlotte Motor Speedway with the confidence of a two-time winner.
It was a disappointing finish for Kahne last weekend. He’s been the driver to beat on the 1.5-mile tracks as of late, and according to him, he was the victim of some oil left over from a poor track cleanup job. Kahne told Motor Racing Network's Dustin Long that "NASCAR just didn't clean the track."
This weekend, there’s no excuses for the No. 5 Chevrolet not to finish in the top five. Kahne is a four-time winner at CMS with an impressive nine top-fives.
He finished third at Kansas two weeks ago.
A two-time CMS winner, Kenseth is still winless in 2014. Top-10 finishes at the last two 1.5-mile tracks (Texas and Kansas) show that this team is just a click off of winning on one.
It’s hard to imagine this Joe Gibbs Racing team going much further without a win. If it doesn’t come here, it will come at Dover next weekend.
McMurray (above) has three wins at CMS, including last weekend’s All-Star victory. His Chevrolet SS was fast on the short runs. Will it be fast for the longer runs during the Coca-Cola 600?
This Team Penske squad has scored only one top-10 in the last eight weeks. How much longer can it continue to struggle? Or does crew chief Paul Wolfe hold an ace up his sleeve that he’ll pull out Sunday night?
The winner of the Sprint Showdown, Bowyer’s resounding victory revealed that, indeed, his team does have a pulse. But can it keep the momentum going until Sunday night?
No wins at CMS, but five top-fives and a pole have this Roush Fenway Racing team on a short list to break through with a win and a Chase berth this Sunday. Not only does Biffle want to deliver during his contract negotiations, but team owner Roush would also like to prove that staying put is the right move for the veteran driver.
Also winless at Charlotte, but with one pole and four top-five finishes, this Joe Gibbs Racing team may have the Talladega trophy and a trip to the Chase, but it needs to show that it's got a solid 1.5-mile setup for those last 10 races. Now is the time to do that.
Here's another winless driver at Charlotte. But this one has nine, count ‘em nine, poles on this 1.5-mile track. Newman certainly has shown that he knows how to get around the Speedway very quickly.
He’s not been able to close the deal, however—at least not until now. With rookie Austin Dillon still trying to gain traction and Paul Menard quietly doing his thing, the Richard Childress camp is putting all its eggs in the Newman basket—and for good reason.
The Daytona 500 (2008) and Brickyard 400 (2013) winner isn’t flashy or consistent. But he does win races. That’s what his sponsor Caterpillar was looking for when it gave team owner Childress the thumbs-up for the hire.
A Newman win in front of the home crowd would be big since he and his wife, Krissie, are such a significant part of the NASCAR family.
A Historical Perspective
One can only imagine the conversation some 50-plus years ago between two racers, or maybe it was a racer and Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR.
“Them Indy car boys sure do put on one heck of a show up there in Indianapolis on Memorial Day, don’t they?”
“Yeah, how are we gonna top that?”
“We’ll make our race 600 miles! And let everyone decide which one of us puts on the better show.”
In the decades since, the Indianapolis 500 has remained the iconic Greatest Spectacle in Racing, while the NASCAR version of the holiday classic easily gained status as one of NASCAR's crown jewels, but it never has topped the open-wheel race in popularity or spectacle.
The World 600, as it was originally called, really did start out that way. Back in 1960, it was also supposed to be the debut of a new race track built just north of Charlotte, built by racer-turned-entrepreneur Curtis Turner and local businessman Bruton Smith. Work delays had the track missing the scheduled Memorial Day weekend debut, though, and it actually had its first race some two weeks later.
Those early 600-mile races were more brutal endurance events than real racing, with far less than the full field actually making it to the checkered flag. Drivers such as Fred Lorenzen and Bobby Allison dominated.
Today, the cars are better, and technology has made the drivers a lot more comfortable for the more than four hours they spend strapped behind the wheel. As a result, the race has turned into one of strategy and patience.
You can have a bad pit stop at this race and recover. You can even go a lap down, gain it back and challenge for the win.
Sure, the Indianapolis 500 is one heck of a show. But the NASCAR boys have made their Memorial Day weekend event one to look forward to every year.
Jimmie Johnson won the pole for the 55th annual Coca Cola 600 with a lap of 27.705 seconds, 194.911 mph.
It was his first pole of the 2014 season and his 33rd career pole.
Brad Keselowski will start second, Kasey Kahne is third.
Of note: Danica Patrick (4th); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10th); Kevin Harvick (11th); Matt Kenseth (12th)
Justin Allgaier is the highest-qualifying rookie at 17th. Kyle Larson will start 25th, and Austin Dillon is 32nd.
And the Winner Is?
The way this Stewart-Haas Racing team was able to bounce back from its early season adversity is the stuff champions are made of.
Harvick gives credit to the team focusing on its strengths throughout its difficulties as the reason it kept from imploding when times got tough.
And apparently those tough times made it even more resilient. Harvick’s No. 4 team is now one of the small, select group of teams that has to be considered a favorite every weekend.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis
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