NASCAR at Charlotte 2015: Complete Preview and Prediction for the Coca-Cola 600

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistMay 21, 2015

NASCAR at Charlotte 2015: Complete Preview and Prediction for the Coca-Cola 600

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    The All-Star Race is in the rearview mirror, and now it's time to look ahead to an exciting summer of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, leading into another (hopefully) action-packed Chase in the fall.

    But first, the Sprint Cup drivers are going to have their endurance and driving acumen put to the test in the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Jimmie Johnson is coming in as the defending champion, Kevin is coming in as the winner of the most recent Charlotte race back in the fall, Denny Hamlin has an All-Star victory under his belt and there are dozens of drivers still trying to get their first win of the season and secure a berth in the postseason.

    So get all of your snacks ready, it's going to be a long and entertaining Sunday night. Here's what you need to know.

By the Numbers: Charlotte Motor Speedway

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    CHRIS KEANE/Associated Press

    Coca-Cola 600

    Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway

    Date: Sunday, May 24

    Time: 6 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox, 6 p.m. ET

    Radio: Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM Channel 90

    Distance: 400 laps, 600 miles 

    Defending race winner: Jimmie Johnson

    Youngest Charlotte winner: Jeff Gordon (22 years, 9 months, 25 days)

    Oldest Charlotte winner: Carl Yarborough (46 years, 6 months, 9 days)

    Defending pole winner: Jimmie Johnson

    Youngest Charlotte pole winner: Jeff Gordon (22 years, 2 months, 6 days)

    Oldest Charlotte pole winner: Bobby Allison (49 years, 10 months, 8 days)

    Track Notes

    • NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty leads the series in starts at Charlotte with 64. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 44 starts, followed by Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart with 31. Richard Petty and Bill Elliott have made the most Coca-Cola 600 starts with 31 each; Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in 600 starts with 22.
    • Forty-two drivers have Coors Light poles at Charlotte, led by David Pearson with 14. Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers in poles at CMS with nine.
    • Forty-five different drivers have won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, led by Jimmie Johnson with seven wins including four Coca-Cola 600 wins—2003, 2004, 2005 and 2014.  
    • Seven times from seven different drivers has the winner of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race gone on to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Jeff Gordon (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2003), Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).
    • Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in average starting position at Charlotte with a 7.630.
    • Joey Logano leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in average finishing position at Charlotte with a 10.000. Carl Edwards leads all active drivers in average finish in the Coca-Cola 600 with a 9.000.


    Statistics courtesy of NASCAR media relations.

Key Storylines

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Will Denny Hamlin be Able to Carry Over His All-Star Momentum?

    Denny Hamlin notched what he considered to be the biggest win of his career last Saturday, with his first victory in the Sprint All-Star Race. Now, Hamlin—who is already in the Chase, thanks to his victory at Martinsville—will try and get his first points win at Charlotte. He has finished in the top five in three of the last four years at the Coca-Cola 600.

    Can Jeff Gordon Finally Get His First Victory?

    This is the question that nobody will stop asking until it happens. It's Jeff Gordon's swan song year (you might have heard something about that, but it's been pretty under-the-radar), and he's still trying to get the victory that will get him into the Chase. Gordon has nine victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his career, so he's familiar with this Victory Lane.

    How Will Kyle Busch's First Sprint Cup Points Race of the Season Go?

    Kyle Busch had his comeback race last week at the All-Star Race, as he drove the No. 18 car for the first time since his horrendous wreck in the XFinity Daytona race in February that left him with a broken leg and foot.

    With a sixth-place finish, he certainly showed that he hadn't lost much speed during his layoff. However, 600 miles is a completely different animal, and it'll be interesting to see how the Joe Gibbs Racing driver—and brand-new father—manages.

    Is Landon Cassill Fit Enough to Survive His Personal "Endurance Double"?

    At last year's Coca-Cola 600, all the attention was on Kurt Busch, who was attempting the Indianapolis 500-Charlotte double. Unfortunately, his engine blew up, and he wasn't able to complete the 600 miles at Charlotte. Landon Cassill's double this year is a bit different.

    After hopefully completing all 400 laps at CMS, Cassill—who is an experienced triathlete—will put on his running shoes and run 14 miles to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as part of a promo for his Charlotte sponsor, Snap Fitness. I'm exhausted just thinking about it. 

    My goal with this post-race run is to motivate the sport’s fanbase to get up and make fitness a priority this summer.” Cassill said, as reported by Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports.

Drivers to Watch

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    Bob Jordan/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin

    Hamlin not only won the All-Star Race last week, but he was also the pole-sitter too, proving that he and his team have the speed to win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Of course, Hamlin will have to hold off the pack for much longer at the Coca-Cola 600, but if he and his pit crew are as on-their-game as they were during the All-Star Race, he'll have a shot.

    Martin Truex Jr.

    Last week was no doubt a disappointing week for Truex Jr., who is second in points this year but has yet to win a race, and missed out on the All-Star Race by failing to win a Sprint Showdown race or the Sprint Fan Vote. He'll try and get things back on track this week at CMS, where his only victories have come in the Sprint Showdown.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    One of the oddest stats in NASCAR is the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never won a points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, despite growing up nearby and racing at the track at least twice a year since 2000. It's just hard to imagine that trend carrying on much longer, particularly as consistent as he's been lately.

    Kyle Busch

    As we mentioned, the younger Busch brother will be making his points-race 2015 debut on Sunday night in the most grueling of all the races. Merely completing this race would be a huge accomplishment for Kyle. In 22 Sprint Cup races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he has 10 top fives but no victories.

    Kasey Kahne

    Kahne is always a factor at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a place where he has four victories. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is in the midst of a consistent season where he's yet to leave the top 10 in the points, but he's still searching for his first victory. It would not be a surprise if he got it on Sunday night.

Favorites

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson

    Johnson might as well just set up camp in the Charlotte infield with as much luck as he's had on this track. He has seven victories and 13 top fives at CMS, a record that includes last year's Coca-Cola 600. Last year he notched his first win of the season at Charlotte; this year he has three victories in his pocket already. 

    Kevin Harvick

    Including All-Star races, Harvick has finished first or second in five of his last six starts at Charlotte. He won the race on this track in the Chase last fall, and considering how well he's fared on mile-and-a-half tracks this year so far, it'd be an upset if he wasn't vying for the win at the end.

    Joey Logano

    Logano doesn't have any career wins at Charlotte yet, but he has had success on the track, with four top fives in 12 races. The Penske driver has been a beacon of consistency this year, with six top fives and his Daytona 500 victory, so getting a breakthrough at Charlotte would be a logical next step.

    Jeff Gordon

    This four-time Sprint Cup champion has five career wins in Charlotte and 17 top fives. He's getting close to desperate for his first win of the season—or perhaps that's our collective feelings projecting on him?—and a secure spot in the Chase during his last season. Be on the lookout for some vintage No. 24 finishing at the Coca-Cola 600.

    Brad Keselowski

    Bad Brad Keselowski took a big risk last week at the All-Star Race, pushing his speed to the brink on pit road to try and get the first-place position from Denny Hamlin. However, that backfired when he got a speeding penalty and was pushed to the back of the pack, ending his hopes at his first All-Star win. 

    He'll hope to fare better this Sunday. The new dad (yes, if you're keeping track, that's two new NASCAR babies this week) will be going for his second career win at Charlotte and second victory of the 2015 season.

Dark-Horse Pick

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Martin Truex Jr. hasn't necessarily had the results at Charlotte that justify picking him as a dark horse for the Coca-Cola 600, but he has had the speed and consistency this season to make me think that Sunday night could be his night to shine.

    After all, Truex Jr. is second in points this year, and before the All-Star break, he had a great showing at Kansas.

    "The good news for us is that our primary 600 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet will be the same car we had in Kansas a couple of weeks ago," Truex said (via a release by Speedway Media). "We led the most laps in Kansas (95) and had an excellent opportunity to win that race."

    Truex has finished in the top 10 in every race this season except for one. He'll find his way back to Victory Lane sooner rather than later.

And the Winner Is: Kevin Harvick

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    I know, I know, Kevin Harvick is not an out-of-the-box pick for the winner of the Coca-Cola 600. But really, it's hard to bet against the No. 4 car.

    Harvick pretty much killed his All-Star Race chances before they began last Saturday, finishing last in qualifying after overshooting his pit stall during the mandatory qualifying pit stop. However, he was able to race his way back to second place—even challenging Denny Hamlin for first for a little bit—and was able to work through any jitters on the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    "No matter what happens the rest of the night, I can’t wait to run 600 miles," Harvick's crew chief Rodney Childers said to him during the race, as reported by Jay Pennell of Fox Sports

    Harvick has two wins and six runner-up finishes in Sprint Cup races this season—if he and Childers are geared up for the Coca-Cola 600, that spells trouble for the rest of the field.