When you talk about the most prestigious races in NASCAR, the Coca Cola 600 is easily in the top two or three. Charlotte is the home for most of the teams which already gives this race importance but it is also the longest race on the NASCAR schedule. It’s also very special considering that it’s Memorial Day weekend; the track does a lot for veterans and also puts on a wild pre-race show for the fans. 600 grueling miles at the 1.5 mile quad-oval will test each driver mentally and physically while also pushing their machines too the absolute limit and beyond. It takes patience and experience to win this race but we have seen some surprises in the past. Casey Mears won his only NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) race in the Coke 600 back in 2007 and David Reutimann captured his first victory in the 600 two years later.
The first Coke 600 took place back in 1960 and it was actually called the World 600. 36 of the 60 entries failed to finish the race and another six were disqualified. Joe Lee Johnson won the inaugural event and maybe that was an omen for the Johnson that would dominate this track half a century later. 5-time NSCS champion Jimmie Johnson (no relation to Joe Lee) is without a doubt the best driver to ever take on Charlotte Motor Speedway. He won his record 4th All-Star Race less than one week ago surpassing fellow legends Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. Joey Logano finished 2nd in the All-Star Race after the Busch brothers dominated most of the event. Here’s a look at who I think will be contenders this weekend and why…
Kurt and Kyle Busch were fast last weekend and will definitely be fast again in the 600. Kurt Busch is the 2010 winner of the Coke 600 while his little brother Kyle has never visited victory lane at Charlotte. I doubt that they will win the 600 though; this a race where patience is a necessity and these highly aggressive racers go all-out every lap which just doesn’t work here. They will be fast and I can see them leading some laps but they won’t be in contention for the victory late in the race. Matt Kenseth is the definition of patience; he always keeps the car in contention but waits to unleash his true potential until it’s time to pounce. Matt is a 2-time Charlotte winner including the 2000 Coca Cola 600 which happened to be his first Cup victory. He will be up front and could pull it and I see him finishing well but not winning much like the Busch’s.
That leads me to Jimmie Johnson, the master of Charlotte. Four All-Star wins, six point race wins including three consecutive wins in the Coke 600 make up his impressive resume. He hasn’t won a points race at Charlotte since 2009 and has finished outside the top 10 in four of his last six races here but look no further than last Saturday night if you have doubts when it comes to his chances. He will lead laps, he will be a contender but he will not win his 4th Coca Cola 600 this weekend. So, I’ve shut down Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and even Jimmie Johnson so who is left that might take the checkered flag Sunday night?
Defending Coca Cola 600 winner Kasey Kahne is my pick to win this weekend. He is coming off a great run in the All-Star Race and he has been very fast at every 1.5 mile track this year. He finished a very close 2nd at Las Vegas and Kansas and nearly won the All-Star Race. Kasey is a 4-time Charlotte winner and a 3-time winner of the Coca Cola 600 in 2006, 2008 and 2012. With Hendrick power and some great talent behind the wheel, I see the Farmers Insurance Chevrolet going to victory lane this weekend. Not to mention he wants to run well for his newly acquired Yellow Lab named Billy. (Check Kahne’s Twitter if you have no clue what I’m talking about)
So Kahne, Johnson, Kenseth and the Busch brothers are the obvious favorites to win this weekend. Who then are the drivers that will most likely struggle? Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr. and Marcos Ambrose are drivers I think will have problems at Charlotte. Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole has had an awful season with the exception of the few great runs Ryan Newman has put up and Patrick’s Daytona 500 pole. Tony was never a contender in the All-Star Race quietly finishing 14th and never running up front. I’m afraid we will see more of the same from him in the 600 but Newman on the other hand showed a lot of strength last week before making heavy contact with Kyle Busch when he was charging through the field on a restart. Biffle also struggled in the All-Star Race and has very up and down results at Charlotte never winning. Truex was disappointing in the Sprint Showdown bouncing off the wall multiple times during the event. Ambrose’s car from last week was hopefully burned because it was so terrible. He was out of control in All-Star Race practice before he crashed into the wall when the rear axle flew out. His backup wasn’t much better and he ran towards the back of the pack finishing 17th.
This 600 mile event Sunday will have some good racing but don’t be surprised to see it get very calm with some long green flag runs throughout it. There will be lots of comers and goers as teams struggle to adapt to abruptly changing track conditions. Charlotte is considered the most weather sensitive track next to Indianapolis and the transition from day to night is going to give the crew chief’s problems as they try to keep up. Watch out for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing by the way. Both McMurray and Montoya were very fast in the Showdown and Jamie won it going on to finish a solid 8th in the All-Star Race. Juan would have most likely been right there with him had he not been handed a pit road speeding penalty halfway through the race which forced him to restart last. He drove all the way back up to the top five but ran out of time to race his way into the big show. It will be a race that will keep you guessing when it comes to who’s going to win and maybe we’ll see another first time winner like this race is so famous for producing.