No time to waste running Coca-Cola 600 marathon
Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be as different as night and day. That’s because the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ longest – and, perhaps, most grueling – race begins in the late afternoon heat and ends in darkness (FOX, PRN Radio, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, 6 p.m. EDT).
The 600-mile race comprised of 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout is an exercise in strategy.
Run fast enough to keep track position when the sun shines but be able to adjust for the nighttime finish. The race’s extra 100 miles is taxing on both engines and driver concentration.
It’s a marathon but no longer can a driver bide his time and wait to make a late charge.
“You can’t go into this race thinking, ‘Oh, we’re just going to cruise at the beginning and wait for the track to come to us,’” said Jeff Gordon, a three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner. “That used to exist but it doesn’t anymore. You start charging from the drop of the green flag.”
No team has a better record at Charlotte Motor Speedway than Hendrick Motorsports. The organization has won 17 points-paying races – nine more than the next-best Roush Fenway Racing and Petty Enterprises.
Kasey Kahne won last year’s Coca-Cola 600 – his third – in his first season in HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet.
Teammate Gordon’s 1994 Coca-Cola 600 win was the first of his 87 Sprint Cup victories. Gordon is the last to win both race and championship in the same seasons (1997-98).
But make no mistake. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson remains Charlotte’s gold standard.
Johnson has won the Coca-Cola 600 three times with six Charlotte victories overall. His next win will make him the track’s all-time winner, breaking a record he shares with NASCAR Hall of Fame members Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
As further proof that Johnson is the driver to beat in Sunday’s race – the first with NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car – the Californian won his record fourth NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race last weekend, coming from deep in the field to dispatch Kahne.
Johnson ranks No. 1 in five Loop Data categories including Driver Rating (111.7), Average Running Position (7.9) and Fastest Laps Run (544).
Johnson’s All-Star victory may herald the No. 48 Chevrolet team’s return to Charlotte dominance. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus last won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2005 – before the track was repaved.
“It’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again and we’re knocking on the door,” Johnson said in his post-all-star race interviews.
Solid Season, Experience Gives Junior Optimism
You could say Dale Earnhardt Jr. has some catching up to do.
He’s winless at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne boast a combined 15 victories.
The track hasn’t spun Junior out. But he hasn’t quite conquered the 1.5-mile layout either.
Earnhardt’s record is so-so: five top fives and 11 top 10s in 26 races. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has fashioned a trio of top-10 finishes, including a sixth in last year’s Coca-Cola 600. He nearly won the race in 2011, losing the lead to Kevin Harvick after his fuel cell ran dry during a green-white-checkered finish.
Earnhardt’s Charlotte statistics aren’t stellar: Driver Rating of 78.8 (18th-best); Average Finish of 18.8; Average Running Position of 20.2 (25th-best) and 487 Quality Passes (17th-most).
Yet if the season to date is any indication, this could be the May that Earnhardt finally busts open the gates to Charlotte’s Victory Lane.
Earnhardt has finished second twice, at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway, and led the points standings. Fourth in current points, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet hasn’t ranked outside the top five this season. He finished seventh in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Fifteen seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has taught Earnhardt patience – a huge asset in approaching the four-plus hour Coca-Cola 600.
“I think the older you get the smarter you become, and the better you are at making decisions and understanding what are the battles you need to fight and what battles aren’t battles you need to be in the middle of,” Earnhardt said a week ago.
Hamlin, Stewart On Similar Chase Trajectories
Denny Hamlin’s on the right track. Tony Stewart needs to get untracked.
That’s the situation for both drivers in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, a race neither has won.
Hamlin returned from the disabled list earlier this month at Darlington Raceway and finished second in his first full race since suffering back injuries in late March. He needs to reach the top 20 in order to parlay one or more victories into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Wild Card.
So far, so good. Hamlin ranked 31st, 76 points out of 20th entering the Bojangles’ Southern 500. He cut the deficit to 61 points and now ranks 27th.
Hamlin finished second in both of last year’s Charlotte races and rides a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes.
Things are bit more complicated for Stewart. He’s closer to Wild Card territory – 21st, five points behind Jeff Burton – but has yet to build momentum. In fact, this is the three-time champion’s worst start since becoming a Sprint Cup competitor.
Stewart never has entered the season’s 12th race without a top-five finish. His single top 10 – eighth at Phoenix – is an 11-race low. Until this year, Stewart’s worst 11-race points ranking was 18th in 2010 but he recovered to make the Chase.
Summer, when temperatures rise and track surfaces become slick, is prime time for Stewart. The 47-time Sprint Cup winner counts at least one victory at all but one of the tracks (Kentucky) remaining before the post season begins.
Stewart has won at Charlotte, but not in the spring. He has just one Coca-Cola 600 top-10 finish – sixth in 2007 – in his most recent eight races. His best finish, third, came in 2001. Stewart’s next top-five finish will be his 175th and will tie Bill Elliott for 17th on the Sprint Cup all-time list.
‘Long’ Shot: Stenhouse Hopes Greatness Awaits
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 12th in the season-opening Daytona 500, a result that would come to define his consistent rookie season. Stenhouse, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings leader, continued to hammer away at the top 15 and top 20.
Still, a win – and a top-10 finish – await. And if he gets it this Sunday during NASCAR’s longest race, he’ll join an exclusive and illustrious list of drivers who earned their first win in the Coca-Cola 600.
That list includes David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears and David Reutimann. Four of those drivers – Pearson, Gordon, Kenseth and Labonte – went on to win NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships later in their respective careers.
Stenhouse leads the rookie standings by one point over Danica Patrick, who looks to become the first female driver to score a top-10 finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
Patrick ran last year’s 600, finishing 30th. She became the second female to race in the Coca-Cola 600, joining Janet Guthrie, who accomplished the feat in 1976 (she finished 15th). Guthrie finished ninth at Charlotte’s 500-mile race in 1977.
For Busch, Charlotte ‘Cup’ Half Empty
All Kyle Busch does is win, win, win – no matter what. Unless, of course, it’s a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Busch nabbed NASCAR national series win No. 11 last week at Charlotte in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event, pushing his career total to 113 victories. Inexplicably, not one of those has come driving a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car at Charlotte.
He’s come close, as his Charlotte top-five percentage of 44 percent would suggest (eight top fives in 18 races). The only track where Busch boasts more top fives is Richmond, with 12. Busch’s best Charlotte finish is second, which he did in the October race in both 2010 and 2011. His best Coca-Cola 600 finish was third, which he accomplished three times – most recently in 2012.
Figure on a win coming sooner than later. He has scored top fives in five of the last six races and has only one finish outside the top 10 in the last 11 Charlotte events.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
If the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is any indication, expect another highly competitive race come Sunday. There were 24 green flag passes for the lead during the all-star race, an event best since the inception of NASCAR’s loop data in 2005. … Trevor Bayne returns to the seat of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford on Sunday. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has four starts this season, with a best finish of 18th at Texas. … Jamie McMurray, who dominated last Saturday’s Sprint Showdown with a perfect Driver Rating of 150.0, earned his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte on Oct. 13, 2002, in his second career start. … There have been nine different winners in the last nine Charlotte races. … Bobby Labonte will attempt to make his 700th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start on Sunday.
21-Week Stretch Of Racing Could Help Determine Champion
By the time the NASCAR Nationwide Series enjoys their next weekend off the championship contenders will have separated themselves from the pretenders. Saturday’s History 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway marks the beginning of a 21-week stretch in which the series will be on track every weekend. It’s a stretch that lasts five months, ending with the Dollar General 300 at Charlotte on Oct. 11.
It spans the entire summer on into the fall and is a huge factor in determining the champion. During the stretch there are very little opportunities for drivers and teams to take a break, mentally collect themselves after a rough outing or not bring their “A game.”
A bad start could spell “D-O-O-M” for a driver’s chance at the crown, but a strong and consistent run throughout the stretch could help propel a driver to the Championship Stage at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Last year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drove well during a similar, 16-week stretch that eventually led him to his second consecutive championship. With the exception of a 25th-place finish at Michigan in the first race of the stretch and a 17th at Kentucky in its 15th race, Stenhouse finished no lower than 12th, including wins at Atlanta and Chicagoland.
After the Michigan race, he was third in the overall standings, but by the end of the marathon he had moved into second (only nine points behind leader Elliott Sadler). Stenhouse briefly sat atop the standings after the 14th race (Chicagoland), but surrendered the lead the following weekend.
Three races after the 16-race stretch ended, Stenhouse regained the points lead and held it the rest of the way.
Buescher And Reed: Roush’s Two New Young Talents
Jack Roush always has a way of finding young talent to pilot his race cars in NASCAR’s three national series.
Reminiscent of the years when the co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing hosted a Gong-Show style audition to identify up-and-coming drivers from around the world for his NASCAR team, Roush has once again found two promising newcomers.
This year, 20-year-old Chris Buescher and 19-year-old Ryan Reed have shared seat time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Buescher has appeared in three races, while Reed has competed once.
Buescher is entered in Saturday’s History 300 at Charlotte. If his three races this season are any indication as to how he’ll do at the 1.5-mile track, he should perform admirably. In his first race (Bristol), he grabbed his only top-10 finish in the series when he finished seventh. His other two starts (Texas and Darlington) have resulted in 17th- and 12th-place finishes, respectively. Not too shabby for someone who only has five career starts in the series.
Reed competed in his first series race this year at Richmond, where he finished 16th.
Trevor Bayne and Travis Pastrana, RFR’s two full-time drivers, are also still developing as competitors in the series.
It’s Time For Sadler To Step On The Gas
If Elliott Sadler wants to make a serious run at the NASCAR Nationwide crown, an achievement that has eluded him the past two seasons when he was runner-up to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., he needs to continue running strong.
Sadler is currently third in the standings, 42 points behind Regan Smith, and only has one finish lower than 15th – a 36th-place finish at Bristol. Through nine races this season, he has three top fives and five top 10s, including a runner-up finish at Darlington.
If he is to continue his climb toward the apex of the standings – he was 10th after the fourth race – he’ll need to continue the hot streak he’s been on at Charlotte. Over the past four races at the 1.5-mile track, Sadler has finishes of third, fourth, fifth and 10th, dating back to the May 2011 race. His best series finish at Charlotte came in October 2005 when he was runner-up to Ryan Newman.
Although Sadler has never won at Charlotte, it’s possible he could take his inaugural trip to Victory Lane there this weekend. It’s a sure bet that a victory or another top-five finish, which would be his 50th in the series, could provide just the boost he needs to get closer to that elusive crown.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
After being sidelined for eight races, Michael Annett will return to the driver’s seat of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Annett, who suffered a broken and dislocated sternum in February’s season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, was medically cleared earlier this week to resume competition. … Johanna Long, who drives the No. 70 ML Motorsports Chevrolet, will make her last start as a 20-year-old this Saturday. The following day, she will celebrate her 21st birthday. … Jeff Green will attempt to start his 350th series race this weekend, tying him for eighth place with two-time NNS champion Randy LaJoie. … Justin Allgaier will be making his 150th series start.
Reunion Paying Dividends For Gaughan, Wilson
When Brendan Gaughan decided to return full-time to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, one of the first things his Richard Childress Racing team did was bring back Shane Wilson. Wilson and Gaughan were last together a decade ago when Gaughan enjoyed his best season to date picking up six of his eight career wins.
“It’s been a lot of fun being back with Shane,” Gaughan said a few days after his second-place finish at Charlotte . “There are so many things that a new driver and crew chief combo need to work through, but we don’t, because we already know each other. The crew guys are starting to see it and that’s what’s really fun.”
After falling back in the points when he was collected in an accident at Daytona, the Las Vegas, Nev., native has climbed to fourth in the points and he feels he has the team to get him back to Victory Lane.
“Since the beginning of the season, we’ve come from 28th in points up to fourth,” Gaughan said. “If I would have had just one more foot at Martinsville, we could very well have had four top-five finishes in a row. This has been a great season so far. It’s what you expect when you come to Richard Childress Racing. It’s what Richard [Childress] expects out of his Truck Series teams. It’s what I expected when I went racing full time this year for RCR.”
Gaughan sits one position behind teammate Ty Dillon and feels the entire RCR team is poised for a run to Victory Lane in the next few weeks.
“Right now, Ty is third in the points and the South Point Hotel & Casino team is fourth,” Gaughan said. “Everyone asked at the start of the season, ‘what happens if you’re first and second in points at the end of the season?’ I tell people that’s what we want to happen, and that’s what we’re working toward right now.”
Crafton Concocts Points-Leading Formula
Speed and consistency is a championship-winning formula. At least, that’s what Matt Crafton hopes. The NASCAR Camping World Truck standings leader so far has both bases covered: a victory at Kansas Speedway and five top-10 finishes in the season’s five races run to date including last week’s fourth place at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Crafton is the only driver to score “perfect” in the top-10 category.
Crafton is due to start his 300th consecutive race at Dover International Speedway on May 31. He’ll become the seventh driver to reach the 300-race mark. Crafton, who holds a 22-point lead over Jeb Burton, has finished among the top 10 in his five most recent trips to the “Monster Mile” with a best performance of third in 2011.
While Crafton continues to ride high, his four closest pursuers are anything but comfortable. Just nine points cover the quartet of Burton, Dillon, Gaughan and reigning series champion James Buescher. Johnny Sauter, who won the season’s first two races, dropped to sixth – 37 points behind ThorSport Racing teammate Crafton – after finishing 28th at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Last week’s race at Charlotte produced a track record for green-flag passes for the lead with 30, topping the old mark of 24 set on May 20, 2011. … Burton continues to impress, the 20-year-old picking up his third 21 Means 21 Pole Award of the season at Charlotte. … Todd Peck participated in the Arthritis Walk-Charlotte at the U.S. National Whitewater Center to help raise funding for the Arthritis Foundation. Peck, who was diagnosed with arthritis as a child, trotted a three-mile course along with hundreds of arthritis patients and their families as a reminder to stay moving for at least 30 minutes a day. Peck will compete in Kentucky on June 27.
30-Day Stretch Weighty For East, West
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West head into an important 30-day window that will have a big impact on the title hopes of the top contenders.
By the end of June, the West will have run four races in the next five weeks and the East will have three. They’ll meet head-to-head in the annual combination race at Iowa Speedway on June 7.
First for the West, however, is the first of three road course races on the calendar this Saturday with a trip to the 2.5-mile Brainerd International Raceway.
Michael Self, the 22-year-old former karting champion from Park City, Utah, is the defending race winner. The driver for Jim Offenbach’s Golden Gate Racing Team – which has an affiliation with Richard Childress Racing – sits sixth in the standings. A win in Minnesota would go a long way to getting him back in the hunt.
He’ll have plenty of competition. Greg Pursley, the 2011 series champion, has four road-course wins. Points leader Derek Thorn scored his best road course finish last year with a second place at Sonoma. And then there’s road-course ringer Andrew Ranger. Thirteen of Ranger’s 16 career wins in the Canadian Tire Series came on road courses, and he scored a pair of K&N Pro Series wins in 2010 on road courses.
The NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour will race under the lights when it returns to Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway for the TSI Harley-Davidson 125 presented by G-Oil on Friday. Bobby Santos has won three of the last four tour races at Stafford.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- Next Race: Coca-Cola 600
- The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
- The Date: Sunday, May 26
- The Time: 6 p.m. (ET)
- TV: FOX, 5:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 600 miles (400 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- Next Race: History 300
- The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
- The Date: Saturday, May 25
- The Time: 2:45 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ABC, 2:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: PRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 300 miles (200 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- Next Race: Lucas Oil 200
- The Place: Dover International Speedway
- The Date: Friday, May 31
- The Time: 5 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 4:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 200 miles (200 laps)