By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Auto racing’s long day’s journey into night begins on the European continent and ends with NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It’s a feast for the motorsports enthusiast, from the Grand Prix of Monaco to the Indianapolis 500 to the Coke 600, which provides a perfect nightcap to the Sunday before Memorial Day.
The Charlotte race is a welcome home game for the race teams, in that it takes place in the nexus of NASCAR racing, within short driving distance of one of NASCAR’s corporate offices, most race shops and many drivers’ homes.
But before the competitors return to their beds on Sunday night, they will have endured 400 laps at the 1.5-mile track, where the race unfolds—often surprisingly—in the final 100 miles.
Last year, for example, Denny Hamlin was a late arrival in a race that required two overtimes and ran 13 laps beyond its scheduled distance. But as Hamlin put it, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was in the right place at the right time.
In a race of attrition that saw 17 of the 37 drivers fail to finish, Hamlin started from the pole but led just 15 laps. In the second overtime, he beat then-teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line by .014 seconds.
This year, Hamlin will have to beat the Hendrick Motorsports cars—notably William Byron and Kyle Larson, who have combined to win five of the first 13 NASCAR Cup Series races this year.
“I feel like our cars have definitely gotten better on the mile-and-a-half tracks,” said Hamlin, who is seeking his 50th victory in the series. “Obviously, we did win the last mile-and-a-half at Kansas, so I’m optimistic going into this weekend.
“We know we will have to beat the Hendrick guys if we want to have a shot, but I feel like we’ve been trending in the right direction on these types of tracks. We have as good a chance as anyone. We just have to execute throughout the race and be there at the end.”
As Hamlin said, the Hendrick drivers will provide formidable competition. Byron won the most recent points race, at Darlington, and Larson is fresh from a dominating triumph in the NASCAR All-Star Race last Sunday at North Wilkesboro.
Larson won the 600 in 2021, and teammate Chase Elliott won a 312-mile race on the Charlotte oval after NASCAR returned to competition during the pandemic in 2020.
Sunday’s race also marks the return of Hendrick driver Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Chevrolet. Bowman missed three races after sustaining a compression fracture of the spine in a sprint car event at West Burlington, Iowa.
Before his injury, Bowman led the Cup Series in average finish (10.3).
“It’s a boost for all of us to have Alex return to the No. 48 car this weekend at our home track,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “He’s still 17th in points, which says a lot about how well the team performed at the start of the year.
“Alex has worked hard to rehab the injury and come back strong, and I look for him to continue having a championship-caliber season.”
Bowman retained his eligibility for the Cup championship through a medical waiver from NASCAR.
Moonlighters could steal thunder from NASCAR Xfinity regulars at Charlotte
In 13 races as a rookie NASCAR Cup Series driver this season, Ty Gibbs has three finishes of ninth as his best efforts so far.
On Saturday, however, Gibbs returns to the NASCAR Xfinity Series—where he won seven times last year—to race in the Alsco Uniforms 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Gibbs won’t have a smooth path to Victory Lane. He’ll have to beat Kyle Busch, who is driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing in his third Xfinity Series start of the season.
Busch has an enviable Xfinity Series record at Charlotte, to say the least—nine victories, 19 top fives and 22 top 10s in 26 starts at the 1.5-mile track.
Additionally, the Cup interlopers have an advantage in recent seat time. Xfinity regulars have raced only once so far this month, on May 13 at Darlington. John Hunter Nemechek, a two-time Xfinity winner this year, hopes that won’t be a deterrent.
“Charlotte is always a fun weekend, being our home track and being able to have friends and family come out,” said Nemechek, who leads the series by one point over Austin Hill. “I’m really excited about the race.
“It has been a little strange only having one race so far this month, but we’ve been meeting, and in the sim (simulator) trying to stay sharp and be ready for this stretch of races that we’re about to hit this summer. Hopefully, we can get this stretch off to a good start on Saturday.”
Defending race winner Josh Berry likewise is looking for an upswing. Prolific winners last year, the JR Motorsports drivers are still seeking their first victory of 2023. Berry gave JRM its first Charlotte win last season after an intense battle with teammate Justin Allgaier.
“Winning last year was incredible after that duel with Justin, and I was really happy to earn JRM’s first win at Charlotte,” Berry said. “Our intermediate program has been on the upswing for the past couple of years, and we are coming in here confident that the Tire Pros Chevrolet will be at the front.
“I’m happy with the consistency, but we really need to get a win, and this is the place and weekend to do it.”
Series regulars will fight for the win in Triple Truck Challenge at Charlotte
More often than not in recent years, NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway have been won by double or triple-duty Cup Series drivers—in fact, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain found Victory Lane in three of the last four events at the track.
That won’t be the case in Friday night’s North Carolina Education Lottery 200 (8:30 p.m. on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Chastain won’t defend his victory from 2022, and other Cup regulars are notably absent, because Charlotte is hosting the first event of this year’s Triple Truck Challenge, which pays a $50,000 bonus to win one race, $150,000 to win two of the three and $500,000 to sweep the three races.
After Charlotte, the Triple Truck Challenge continues at World Wild Technology Raceway (near St. Louis) on June 3 and Nashville Superspeedway on June 23.
“In order to win the race, you’ve got to be able to run well on the bottom of the track as well as up on the top,” said Grant Enfinger, who finished second to Chastain last year. “I feel like Charlotte is probably one of the trickiest tracks on the schedule in terms of how much the weather conditions from the daytime practice to the nighttime race change the handling characteristics for us.
“It’s a really fun place when you’re dialed in, but it is easy to miss the setup there and have a long night. (Crew chief Jeff) Hensley and I have worked hard at this place, and I’m sure we will unload our Champion Power Equipment Chevy with a good package. We’re taking the same truck that we won Kansas with, so hopefully we can go out there and contend for another win with it on Friday night.”