Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Memorial Day weekend for many is a time to reflect on the sacrifices given by the servicemen and women in our nation’s military and to celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer. But for race fans, the weekend means more than just that. Memorial Day weekend means that the greatest weekend in all of motorsports is upon us, with three different styles of racing taking place in three locations all in one day. This Sunday begins with Formula 1 at Monaco, followed by the Indianapolis 500, and concludes with NASCAR’s longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

While some races may seem like a quick knockout, Sunday’s daylight to dusk to darkness marathon is more of a 10 round slugfest, with the driver’s toughness and endurance being put to the test over the duration of the 400 lap event.

What began as the World 600 back in 1960 and was then truly a race of attrition where only the strongest survived has transformed over the years, but one thing remains: to win this race, you must be able to outlast your competitors and place yourself in the right place to make the move to the front of the field when it counts. While drivers have become more fit and equipment has gotten better over the years, the chances of equipment failure aren’t nearly as high as they were when this race began, but with the cars getting ever faster this season and the teams pushing the envelope more and more, the risk is still there.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1960

Track Size: 1.5-mile quad oval (Turns: 24 degrees; Straights: 5 degrees)

Race Length: 400 laps, 600 miles

Stage Lengths: Four stages, 100 laps each

May 2016 Race Winner: Martin Truex Jr. – No. 78 Toyota (Started First, 392 laps led)

October 2016 Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (Started 11th – 155 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Kurt Busch – No. 41 Chevrolet (27.167 seconds, 198.771 mph – 10/9/2014)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings:

  • No. 48 Chevrolet – Jimmie Johnson – 110.6
  • No. 18 Toyota – Kyle Busch – 104.8
  • No. 11 Toyota – Denny Hamlin – 95.6
  • No. 20 Toyota – Matt Kenseth – 95.2
  • No. 5 Chevrolet – Kasey Kahne – 95.1
  • No. 22 Ford – Joey Logano – 93.0
  • No. 24 Chevrolet – Chase Elliott – 90.6
  • No. 2 Ford – Brad Keselowski – 89.7
  • No. 4 Ford – Kevin Harvick – 88.3
  • No. 41 Ford – Kurt Busch – 87.4

From the Driver’s Seat

“This weekend’s race is a big one and, being that it’s here in our backyard, it’s almost like a hometown race for everybody,” said Kurt Busch. “All of the guys who work at the shop and don’t get to go to the track on a weekly basis usually get to come out and see all of their hard work on display. You want to really put the banner up for your team.”

“It’s just a marathon mentality. It’s the exact opposite of the All-Star Race. The race starts during the daytime and, even if you’re getting behind early in the race – although you can’t get too far behind – it’s difficult to find a setup that works well at both the beginning and end of the race because of how much the track changes from start to finish. It’s the end of the race, though, when they hand out the points and the check, so you hope your car will race the same way at the end as it did for the All-Star Race, provided you had a good All-Star Race. The mentality is that it’s just pit stop after pit stop with long sequence after long sequence. The All-Star Race is a 100-yard dash. The 600 is a marathon.”

Last Year’s Results

To say that the performance of Martin Truex, Jr. in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was dominant would be a vast understatement.

After pacing final practice and starting on pole for NASCAR’s longest night, Truex completely demolished the competition, leading 392 of the 400 lap event en route to his first win of the season. The 392 laps that Truex led eclipsed the record for the most laps led in a race at Charlotte, which was set by Jim Paschal in the 1967 World 600 with 335 laps led.

The win is redemption for Truex, who had seen win after win slip from his grasp last season, but on that particular Sunday, Truex and his No. 78 team were determined to see it through to the end and they did, leaving second place finisher Kevin Harvick in the dust with a 2.573 second margin of victory.

“It feels awesome,” said Truex. “Coca-Cola 600, man, this is one everybody wants to win. I feel like we had this thing won last year when we gave it up and just I don’t know. There are so many emotions, I had to unplug my radio and just ride around and think for a few minutes, because I didn’t even know what I was going to say or what I was going to do. Just we’ve been through a lot as a group. I’ve been through a lot personally. I’ve been through a lot with Sherry (Pollex, girlfriend) and just it’s fun to have her here and have her celebrate and it’s just – happy for my guys, happy for Barney (Visser, team owner), Toyota, everybody that helps us do this.”

“I mean, I’ve got the best team in the world and we’ve got these Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas flying, man. It’s just fun to drive them and I honestly thought we could have been better tonight and just kept digging and just kept making small adjustments and working on it and I don’t know, man. Here we are, so I was – it was 50 to go and then it was 40 to go and then 30 to go and I just kept praying for no cautions and driving away.”

Truex and Harvick were followed to the line by Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, and Ryan Newman to round out the top-10 finishers.

“I kind of felt like he was playing with us,” said Johnson. “He was so fast. I would flat foot (Turns) 1 and 2, and have a nose on him, and he would drive right back by me into Turn 3 (laughs). So, it was so fast. It was very impressive. I’m happy for Martin. That team and those guys worked awfully hard to get where they’re at.”

Who to Watch

  • Joey Logano – After crashing out of last October’s Bank of America 500, Logano will be looking to turn his Charlotte luck around as he goes for his first Coca-Cola 600 win on Sunday. In 16 previous starts, Logano has one win, five top-five finishes, nine top-10 finishes, 251 laps led, and an average finish of 11.2.
  • Jimmie Johnson – Finishing with a win and a third place finish at Charlotte in 2016, Johnson has his sights set on continuing that trend on the 1.5 mile track this weekend by adding yet another win to his already impressive Charlotte resume. The seven-time series champion has eight wins at the track (2003, 2004 sweep, 2005 sweep, 2009, 2014, and 2016), 15 top-five finishes, 19 top-10 finishes, five poles, 1895 laps led, and an average finish of 12.6 in 31 starts.
  • Kasey Kahne – Though Kahne has struggled this season with only three top-10 finishes to his name, things could take a turn for the better this weekend at Charlotte, a track where he has had a good amount of success over the years. In 26 starts, Kahne has four wins (2006 sweep, 2008, and 2012), 10 top-five finishes, 14 top-five finishes, 1106 laps led, and an average finish of 12.8.
  • Denny Hamlin – Like Kahne, Hamlin has also had performance issues in 2017, but NASCAR’s longest race could prove fruitful for himself and Joe Gibbs Racing as both still seek their first wins of the season. Though Hamlin has yet to win at Charlotte, he has run well at the track, only finishing outside of the top-10 on two occasions in his last 13 starts, including a fourth place finish in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600. Overall, Hamlin has six top-five finishes, 14 top-10 finishes, one pole, 292 laps led, and an average finish of 13.1.
  • Brad Keselowski – Keselowski has won at Charlotte before (2013), but a win in the Coca-Cola 600 still eludes him. The 2012 series champion will look to score not only his first win in the Memorial Day classic, but also his third win of the season. In 15 starts at Charlotte, Keselowski has his one win, three top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, one pole, 217 laps led, and an average finish of 13.4.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Thursday, May 25

  • MENCS Practice (2:00 pm to 3:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (7:15 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Friday, May 26

  • No on-track activity

Saturday, May 27

  • MENCS Practice (9:00 am to 9:55 am – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (11:30 am to 12:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, May 28

  • MENCS Coca-Cola 600 (6:00 pm – 400 laps, 600 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.