Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2015

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    If you like your races high in calories, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway delivers a bastion of high-fructose corn syrup with the most bloated race on the NASCAR circuit.

    This race has particular appeal if you like them long and you want to get a full two-liter jug of Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. These titans of the 1.5-mile ovals will be two prizefighters while the other 41 cars play for peanuts.

    There’s certainly more to this race than just “Johnsvick.” Read on for this week’s storylines ahead of NASCAR’s longest race on this Memorial Day Weekend.

Is This the Week Kyle Larson Finally Reaches Victory Lane?

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Last year it seemed inevitable the way the 2014 Rookie of the Year drove. He came close to winning, at one time earning a sixth-place finish right here at Charlotte.

    But this year has been a sophomore slump of sorts for Kyle Larson. This year he has zero top-fives, zero top-10s and, despite an average start of 11.5, he finishes, on average, 20.5.

    He won the Xfinity race at Charlotte a year ago, beating Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the process.

    "It was nice looking in the rearview mirror and seeing them get smaller and smaller," Larson said in an Associated Press story (h/t ESPN.com). "It's not often the 22 and 54 cars are getting smaller in your mirror."

    What can he do better? Tough to say. The top is bobble-head-top-heavy with talent, and they’re not exactly giving wins away. Larson will have to capitalize where he has confidence, and Charlotte Motor Speedway appears to be one of those places.

Will Kasey Kahne Break Through?

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    With four career wins at Charlotte, Kasey Kahne looks like a sleeper pick to take this race from Johnson and Harvick.

    Kahne drove like a monster through parts of the Sprint All-Star Race, so he could have the right setup—not to mention engine—to compete for a top-five finish.

    Kahne said in Jim Utter’s Charlotte Observer story, "We’ll take it any way we can. We want to make the Chase. We have goals this year like winning more races, running up front more often, being up front in practice, winning poles and doing things we didn’t do last year… Now we need to take the next step and win one.”

    He consistently runs up front and, with an average finish of 15.8 and three top-10s, this could be the track where Kahne clinches a spot in the Chase.

How Will Kyle Busch Fare over 600 Miles?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    By now you should know that Kyle Busch has returned from injuries suffered during a horrific crash on the eve of the Daytona 500. Busch made his unofficial 2015 debut in the All-Star Race, and now he'll make his points-race debut.

    The real key will be how he handles the grind of 600 miles. It’s the longest race on the entire circuit, and Busch hasn’t finished a full race since Homestread in 2014. Should he have the stamina, there’s something promising in his corner.

    Micah Roberts wrote on SportingNews.com, “The fact that teammate Denny Hamlin held on to win the All-Star Race makes any driver within the Joe Gibbs Racing organization a little more attractive— they're closing the gap on the Hendrick engines.” 

    That’s still a big gap, nonetheless.

    Busch’s return is impressive, and it will be key for fans of the No. 18 car how he handles the grind of this ultimate test of endurance.

Jimmie Johnson Goes for No. 8

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    Chris Keane/Associated Press

    There was a time in 2014 when Jimmie Johnson had no wins and the back-and-forth between him and crew chief Chad Knaus had more in common with Neo and Mr. Smith from The Matrix than a symbiotic co-dependence.

    Then Charlotte happened—and after 13 races, Johnson, who led 164 laps, took checkers, won his first race of the year and his seventh at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    "(Thirteen) long races," Johnson said in Jeff Gluck’s USA Today story. "I guess we've created this environment for ourselves. I honestly wasn't stressing. The fact that (13) races created that much buzz just means we've done a lot of great things over the years, so I'll turn it into a compliment."

    In 2015 Johnson already has three wins and has led 364 laps. Heading to Charlotte can solidify his stance of the possible favorite to win the Chase.

    It’s a coin flip of sorts between just who is favored to win the Chase. The favorite, of course, is…

Does Kevin Harvick Exact Spring Revenge at Charlotte?

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    Bob Jordan/Associated Press

    It should come as little surprise that Harvick was the guy just behind Johnson at Charlotte a year ago. It’s a 1.5-mile oval, and these two drivers rubber up these speedways like it’s a two-car race, not 43.

    A year ago Harvick led 100 laps, second only to Johnson. This year, Harvick is the titan of laps led, leading the field through 1,006 revolutions. That’s 29 percent of all laps raced. It’s surprising he has just two wins, then.

    When Harvick won the fall race at Charlotte, it catalyzed his Harvickian run of seven second-place finishes or better.

    Harvick, who finished second (yawn) in the Sprint All-Star Race (also at Charlotte), should get his splitter to the finish line first.