Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the 62nd Running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

After a soggy debut at Circuit of The Americas last weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series heads back to home base at Charlotte Motor Speedway for its traditional Memorial Day Weekend date and Sunday’s 62nd running of the Coca-Cola 600.

While the usual Memorial Day Weekend slate features Formula 1, IndyCar, and NASCAR, a quirk in the schedule this year means only the Indianapolis 500 will precede NASCAR’s longest race.

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. However, 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 athletic and equipment has gotten better over the years, the chances of equipment failure are not nearly as high as they were when this race began, but with the nature of the racing that has emerged since the high downforce package was rolled out and the teams pushing the envelope more and more, the risk is still there.

In a continuation of a return to normal, practice and qualifying will be held this weekend, albeit in a reduced capacity, with just one 50-minute practice session on Friday and qualifying on Saturday ahead of the main event on Sunday.

By the Numbers

What: Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 7 of 36

Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway – Concord, North Carolina (First race: 1960)

When: Sunday, May 30

TV/Radio: FOX, 6:00 pm ET / PRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 1.5-mile quad-oval

Banking: 24 degrees in turns, five degrees on straightaways

Race Length: 400 laps, 600 miles

Stage Lengths: Four stages, 100 laps each

2020 Coca-Cola 600 Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started ninth, 21 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Kurt Busch (27.167 seconds, 198.771 mph – 10/11/2014)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Charlotte:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 105.9
  2. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 96.5
  3. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 95.0
  4. Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 92.0
  5. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 90.8
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 90.3
  7. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 88.5
  8. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 87.9
  9. Tyler Reddick – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 87.8
  10. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 86.8

From the Driver’s Seat

“Charlotte is always a challenge every year,” said Chase Elliott. “600 miles is a long time in the car, but honestly enough the race doesn’t really seem that much different. I know it’s a long race to watch and it is a long race, but behind the steering wheel it really does not, or so far, it does not feel that much different. I don’t know that my preparation will be much different, but obviously it is a huge race. It’s a race we all want to win. It’s a race you want to end your career and say that you have won so hopefully we can knock that off the list this weekend.

After Elliott’s win at COTA last weekend, Hendrick Motorsports has a chance to become the winningest team in NASCAR Cup Series history this weekend, something he and the remainder of the Hendrick entries (Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson) will have an eye on Sunday.

“I think everyone in the organization, in the sport, and even outside the sport knows how important the overall win record is, in general,” said Rudy Fugle, crew chief of William Byron’s No. 24 car. “It’s been a goal that has been set since before I arrived at Hendrick Motorsports. To now be in a position with the organization where our team could be the ones to break that record, it’s monumental.

“I think I can speak for everyone when I say I’m pretty sure all four Hendrick Motorsports teams feel that way, especially heading into Charlotte race week. Charlotte is already a special place for all of us to race at because usually our friends and family are here and it’s a race that holds a lot of history, aside from it being within walking distance of the race shop. You could technically drive the race car over there without a hauler, it’s that close. It’s a special weekend with something even more special on the line, and I hope we get the job done.”

Last Time at Charlotte

Chase Elliott looked to be on cruise control toward a win in the Coca-Cola 600 last year, but a spin by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron with two laps to go changed everything.

Elliott’s team elected to bring him down pit road for fresh tires, while Brad Keselowski and a number of others gambled that staying out on old tires was going to be the key to victory.

As the race restarted four laps past regulation, Keselowski surged ahead into the lead and never looked back, holding onto the top spot throughout the final run to the finish and clinching his first win in the Coca-Cola 600 ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

After restarting 11th, Elliott had powered his way back to third place at the finish, but ran out of time to chase down Keselowski for the win. Ryan Blaney would cross the line in fourth, with Kyle Busch rounding out the top-five finishers.

“It means a lot to me, but I can’t help but think about the Reep family and Donovan.  I hope they’re watching,” Keselowski said of winning with the name of a fallen soldier on his car. “I know the race ran really late, but Memorial Day is about a lot more than racing, but we’re glad to be able to do cool things like racing because of the freedom provided by those willing to make the sacrifices. 

“I feel like I’ve thrown this race away a handful of times and I felt we were gonna lose it today.  I know we’ve lost it the way Chase lost it and that really stinks, and today we finally won it that way and I’m so happy for my team.  I wish my wife was here.  I wish my daughters were here.  It’s a major.  It’s the Coke 600 and this leaves only one major left for me, the Daytona 500, so we’re checking them off.

“I’m tickled to death.  One left, the Daytona 500.  It’s been a great 10-year career I’ve had so far and I hate it took me 10 years to get this one.  I feel like I’ve had cars and a team good enough to do it many times over and it just slipped through our hands and today it didn’t.  I’m just really proud of everyone and persistence pays off.”

In post-race inspection, Johnson’s runner-up finishing Chevrolet was found to be out of tolerance with the rear alignment, forcing NASCAR to disqualify him and drop him to a last-place finish.

Meanwhile, Elliott redeemed himself when the Cup Series returned to Charlotte four days later, taking over the lead with 28 laps to go en route to the victory.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, May 28

  • NASCAR Cup Series Practice (7:00 pm to 7:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, May 29

  • NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (11:00 am – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, May 30

  • Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (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.