Playtime is over.
Back to work for 43 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers in the longest and most grueling race of the season: the Coca-Cola 600.
After a weekend of no points on the line and a million reasons to win at the Sprint All-Star race, the series stays home in Charlotte this Memorial Day weekend for the 14th race of the season.
With a persona all its own, the Coke 600 is one of NASCAR’s marquee events, joining the ranks of the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.
Winning this race puts your name in the history books among the greats. Drivers such as Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Gordon, and Johnson are just some of those that have survived NASCAR’s longest night.
And over the last few years, the next generation of superstars have also pulled off the impossible: David Reutimann won a rain shortened race one year ago and Casey Mears pulled off a fuel mileage gamble in 2007.
Both turned out to be the driver’s first Sprint Cup Series wins. Sunday night, however, may be more of the same at the track that’s deemed “Jimmie’s House.”
After dominating Dover and the first three segments of the All-Star race, Jimmie Johnson is proving all those who believed the spoiler was going to be his undoing wrong. His performance Saturday was worthy of a win had it not been for his late race spin. With 400 laps ahead on Sunday, don’t be surprised if he has his car going in the right direction when it matters most.
But in case he doesn’t, Kurt Busch would love nothing better than to take his car in the wrong direction: backwards around Charlotte Motor Speedway in a victory lap for the second straight week. Busch was the only driver that was able to keep par with Johnson in the All-Star race and was the one to walk away with the million-dollar payday.
The confidence and momentum for his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge will be like no other come race time on Sunday.
Just because this all looks good on paper doesn’t mean any of it will come to fruition. Anything can happen in a 600-mile race and there’s bound to be some surprises. Will another first time winner be crowned? Will the Roush-Fenway Fords awake from the deep slumber they seem to be stuck in? Or will it be the same old song but different verse for Hendrick Motorsports?
Whatever the case may be, our Creatures hope they’ll be the ones to hit the winning key. After taking a week off to enjoy the All-Star festivities, they’re back in action ready to pick up where they left off: winning.
The last three races in Dover, Darlington, and Richmond saw wins collected by Creatures that are putting themselves in championship contention. Now it’s time to see if they have what it takes to find the driver that is going to be around at the end of the long, hot Coca-Cola 600 after taking time to welcome a new Creature onboard.
Misan Akuya: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart has had a lack luster year by his standards: one top five, four top tens, 105 laps led, and 14th in points to date. But he’s only 37 points out of the final spot for the Chase. He may not have gotten his first top ten since March. but I will tell you why I feel Stewart will "Smoke" the field on Sunday night.
At Charlotte Motor Speedway Stewart has one win, six top fives, 11 top tens, 595 laps led, and an average finish of 13.32.
Stewart won the pole at Texas, a track similar to Charlotte. He led for 74 laps and was in contention for the win until a late wreck. Also in the All-Star race last Saturday, Stewart was involved in a wreck, but came back going from eighth to fifth in the final two laps, running times as fast as the winner, Kurt Busch.
Stewart should have at least two Coca-Cola 600 triumphs already if not for blowing an engine in 2003, having to pit in 2007 from the lead, and cutting a tire with two laps to go with a six second lead. Stewart tends to turn it up when the weather outside is hot, and it appears that has started.
James Broomhead: Kyle Busch
Picking a winner for the Coke 600 is a lottery of near-restrictor plate proportions but JGR is probably the team to beat right now. If the spoiler has done anything, it's brought Gibbs back to the game —and Kyle Busch is starting to show the sort of form that blew him onto the big scene in his first year in Toyotas. Now, if he can only avoid his teammate.
Kelly Crandall: Jimmie Johnson
If there was any doubt that the Charlotte Motor Speedway was Jimmie Johnson’s house, that all went out the window after what he did Saturday night in the Sprint All-Star race. After dominating that event, plus the week before in Dover, the No. 48 team hasn’t lost anything and is right where they want to be.
Well, sort of. They want to get back to victory lane and there’s no better place to do that than at a track they won at the last time there was a points paying race at. An argument could also be made that there is no team better than keeping up with a car and track when the race starts in the day and ends at night, just like what we’ll see on Sunday.
I’m not really sure there’s anyone better to endure a 600-mile race and be there at the end than Jimmie Johnson.
Billy Fellin: Kasey Kahne
As a Kasey Kahne fan, I know that he's had a very up and down year. However, he has five consecutive top-10 finishes at Charlotte. His car wasn't fantastic in the All-Star Race, but he knows this track and hopefully will serve as a turning point in his season.
Adam Heasley: Kyle Busch
I'm pretty sure he would have won the All-Star race if not for Denny Hamlin. Busch is a more mature driver and because of that, I think he will be able to pace himself through 600 miles on Sunday!
Christopher Leone: Jimmie Johnson
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 give me if you can take it.
Kara Martin: Jimmie Johnson
In the world of fantasy NASCAR, does one really need a reason to pick Johnson?
Dustin Parks: Jimmie Johnson
It's his yard, and if last week was any indication, he's going to be hard to beat. That No. 48 car is right at home at this track, might as well write it down now and save us all the pain.
Patti Rodisch: Kasey Kahne
Everyone will pick Jimmie Johnson to win this race, and with good reason. I think that Kasey Kahne should not be forgotten as a threat to win. In the last couple seasons, Kahne has led laps and has had very strong cars.
He won the race in 2008 after Tony Stewart cut a tire.
In 2009, rain forced a shortened event and never allowed Kahne to get out in clean air. I think Kahne has had strong cars on multiple occasions, but he has freak equipment failures and gets caught up in others' mistakes early in the race.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Jimmie Johnson
After getting caught speeding down pit lane, which possibly cost him a victory at Dover, Johnson came back during the All-Star race and was able to run up front, which was a good sign that his pit mistake didn't have any affect on his driving.
Johnson calls Charlotte his second home even though Lowe's no longer sponsors the track. A track name means nothing to this four-time champion, and this could be the race that turns his season around.
Rob Tiongson: Jeff Gordon
He's been due for a victory for a very long time, and if Texas was a barometer of how racing at Charlotte will be on Sunday, then I look for the 24 team to finally get it together, avoid their late race problems, and capitalize at a track that used to be their house. With five wins ('94, '97-98 Coke 600 winner, and '99 and 2007 fall race winner), I think it's about time Gordon remembered how to win the longest race of the season.
Alan Wade: Martin Truex Jr.
I am tempted to take Johnson, but somehow I think he will have another small error and take this one from him (I know, wishful thinking). Ford has not won at Charlotte since 2002 and they are still a work in progress this year. Jeff Gordon is due like yesterdays mail, but he sure didn't look very strong last Saturday. I am going to go with my gut here and go with Truex Jr. who had a stellar all-star night last week.
David Yeazell: Jimmie Johnson
It's time for his bad luck streak to end.
Kara Martin (1,746 ) Jeff Gordon finished 11th (2 )
Billy Fellin (1,686 ) Matt Kenseth finished third (3 )
Sal Sigala Jr. (1,625 ) Jimmie Johnson finished 16th (0 )
Kelly Crandall (1,596 ) Kyle Busch won (1 )
Dustin Parks (1,587 ) Jimmie Johnson finished 16th (1 )
Christopher Leone (1,502 ) Carl Edwards finished eighth (2 )
David Yeazell (1,483 ) Jeff Gordon finished 11th (0 )
Rob Tiongson (1,478 ) Tony Stewart finished ninth (0 )
James Broomhead (1,469 ) Martin Truex Jr. finished 12th (1 )
Patti Rodisch (1,422 ) Jimmie Johnson finished 16th (0 )
Misan Akuya (1,377 ) Jamie McMurray finished 32nd (0 )
Adam Heasley (792 ) NO PICK SENT (0 )
Sunday is going to be a long day, with the Coca-Cola 600 starting in the evening and ending late at night. Anything can, and most likely will, happen during 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway. The race can’t be won on the first lap but it certainly can be lost there.
Patience and determination will be the theme for all 43 drivers. Starting at the back of the pack will be like doing so at Daytona or Talladega, anyone can come from anywhere to win. But if there’s one thing to keep an eye on, it's all the drivers that are still looking for their first career win.
Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears, and David Reutimann are some of those that capitalized on one of NASCAR’s biggest nights. With drivers like AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard, and Regan Smith all having their shining moments this year, any one of them could pull the upset of the racing season on Sunday.
Summary of Picks
Jimmie Johnson – 6
Kyle Busch – 2
Kasey Kahne – 2
Martin Truex Jr. – 1
Jeff Gordon – 1
Tony Stewart – 1