The weekend immediately following the Sprint All-Star Race, the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the crown jewels of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Designed to compete with the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend, it joins the Daytona 500, Southern 500, and Brickyard 400 as one of the series’ most important and prestigious races.
Last year’s rain-shortened event was won on a dreary Monday by David Reutimann. He added his name to a long list of first-time winners at the track, including all-time greats David Pearson and Jeff Gordon, by opting not to pit during the final caution of the event while many other cars did. The 600 often produces a surprise winner, as many of the big races do, but to suggest it happens every time would be to ignore many drivers who have won it during the peak of their careers, from Gordon to Dale Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson.
So I’m going to go out on a limb (except it's not really going out on a limb at all) and make Johnson my lead pick. Without the Lowe’s sponsorship, Johnson doesn’t have that extra sort of motivation to dominate at the track, but I see no reason why he can’t keep up a torrid pace of six wins and 13 top-10s in 17 starts. The only race in which he has failed to lead a lap was his track debut. His average finish of 8.6 is by far the best of drivers with at least five starts at the track. This is a gimme if you can take it.
Kurt Busch qualifies as a bit of a dark horse at Charlotte, despite the fact that he won last weekend’s All-Star Race. Busch only has three top-fives and a dismal 20.9 average finish in 19 career points-paying starts. If he can win the 600, however, he’d be the seventh driver in 25 years of Charlotte-based All-Star events to win both races; Kasey Kahne was the last to do it in 2008.
Some other drivers of merit in the longest race of the NASCAR season:
Joey Logano has only four starts at Charlotte, counting his All-Star travails, but has never disappointed. He converted last year’s Fan Vote into an eighth place run, and finished ninth and fifth in the two races that counted last year. This year, he wound up third in the All-Star event. Remember that Jeff Gordon also won the 600 in his sophomore year of NASCAR competition—we could very well see shades of the last great young driver on Sunday night.
Kasey Kahne has also been on a torrid pace at Charlotte over the past two years. In four points-paying starts, he has three podium finishes and a worst placing of seventh. His 11.6 career Charlotte average finish is one of the best on the circuit, and it appears that his worst years at the track are long behind him. Kahne has scored the most points in the last three Charlotte races, and in every amount up through the last nine. He also usually goes big or goes home—he has three wins and five top-fives, but four finishes of 23rd or worse.
Finally, Jeff Burton has been a highly consistent driver at Charlotte as of late. For his career, he has 32 starts with three wins and 15 top-10s, as well as a win in the 2002 All-Star shootout. Burton has scored the third most points at Charlotte over the past five years, second only to Johnson and Kahne; these 10 races have been buoyed by a win in October 2008, five top-10s, and only three finishes outside the top 20.