Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions at Charlotte: Inconsistent Aero and First-time Winners

This Sunday afternoon, three major auto races will be contested on the same day. Formula 1’s Grand Prix of Monaco, IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. It is a the greatest triumvirate in racing, a storied Memorial Day weekend tradition that extends back decades. Each race has something special to offer, and each serves as a showcase event for their respective series.

NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, is the longest event of the day, and the longest of the Sprint Cup schedule as a whole. It is a test of man and machine, a true endurance race in a sport that is rapidly losing them. It is a throwback event where a whole lot can and likely will happen. And there, folks, is where Four Burning Questions comes in.

1. Will anyone be able to pass after what we saw last week?

There’s really no getting around it, last week’s Sprint All-Star Race was a bit of a stinker. While not nearly as bad (in my opinion) as the horrendous 2011, 2012 and 2013 All-Star races (all races which essentially saw almost no passing whatsoever), the race was not up to the standard that one would expect out of a race that generates such hype. While there was actually decent racing through the field, there was a dearth of action up front. Not good.

Let me be the one to step in and direct some of you that are angry after last week’s race off the proverbial ledge for a moment. I don’t think this Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be such a snoozer. People have to understand something about this current aero package (which, realistically, is not drastically different from the last 5-6 Cup aero packages in terms of how it behaves at the silky smooth Charlotte track), it does not do well with short runs at Charlotte. The reason for this is simple: Charlotte is an incredibly smooth and narrow racetrack. This means it takes a long time for the track to A) take rubber and B) widen out groove-wise. This combination means that Charlotte is the kind of track that needs longer runs and a longer overall race to become “racy.” With how short the runs were last week, the track never got the opportunity to get to where it needed to be to make this package work. And guess what? It’s been that way since at least 2011 at Charlotte. So no surprise there.

Luckily, the 600 is the kind of race that fulfills both of those aforementioned conditions to put on a decent Charlotte-specific race with this aero package. Longer runs, changing ambient air conditions as the track transitions from day to night, a wider overall groove, these are all characteristics of the Coca-Cola 600, and those characteristics fit the current aero package much better. I personally think this will lead to a better and more competitive overall race from the one we witnessed last Saturday night. We actually saw this in 2011. The 2011 All-Star race was horrendous and actually less competitive than the 2015 All-Star race. But just one week later, that year’s (2011) Coca-Cola 600 was extremely competitive and overall very dramatic. So long story short, don’t let one race affect your perception of the other.

2. Could a first-time winner be on tap?

The Coca-Cola 600 is what I like to refer to as a high-variance race. The length of the race tends to take a big toll on both equipment and the driver’s mental stamina. This aspect means that blunders, on both the part of the equipment and the drivers, are a much greater occurrence as opposed to less grueling and ones. As you can imagine, this always plays a huge role in affecting the outcome of the race.

The 600 is notorious for comers and goers, and top-five contenders fall out of contention due to mechanical failures, accidents, and pit strategy blunders. This always opens things up to underdog-esque teams and winless drivers who are ready to pounce on the misfortunes of others. Casey Mears won his first and only Sprint Cup race this way back in 2007, and numerous other drivers throughout the history of this race got their first ever Cup win here partly as a result of outlasting the competition. Jeff Gordon in 1994 and Matt Kenseth in 2000 both come to mind in that regard.

Looking at the field for Sunday’s race, we have a very competitive group of career winless drivers starting the race. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are six career-winless drivers in top equipment who could easily steal a win on Sunday. Larson in particular is a very intriguing pick, as he nearly won at a similar Kansas track just a few weeks ago.

Could this be Larson’s breakthrough race? Could another underdog driver come out of nowhere to steal the show? The 600 is the type of race where such a result could become a reality.

3. Will “the Closer” actually close the race out?

Kevin Harvick is often affectionately referred to as “the Closer” in NASCAR circles due to his perceived ability to sneak up out of nowhere and steal race wins when we all least expect it. The funny part about this is that Harvick really isn’t much of a closer at all. At least not in 2015. Harvick has two wins this season, but he realistically could/should have about five or six.

Harvick had the best car in the field late in the race at Auto Club, Texas, Kansas, and most recently last week at the All-Star Race. And guess what? He failed to seal the deal in all four of those events. Not much of a closer, eh?

In fact for as dominant as Harvick has been this year, his win total is still less than Jimmie Johnson‘s (3 to 2), who, despite often having less overall speed than Harvick this year, has beat Harvick in late race wheel-to-wheel battles on three separate occasions. Harvick was beat by Denny Hamlin in a similar fashion last weekend in the All-Star race as well.

I have little doubt that Harvick will be fast once again on Sunday night. He’ll likely have race-winning speed. But if he has any hope of getting his third Coca-Cola 600 victory, he’ll have to step up his ability to win late-race, mano y mano battles for the lead.

4. Will the Toyotas show their muscle?

For the first time in almost a year and a half, the Toyota teams are beginning to flex some muscle on intermediate tracks. The two factory-backed Toyota teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, have lacked overall speed on intermediates since early 2014. But in recent weeks, they have appeared to have re-captured the magic that vaulted Kenseth’s Toyota team to seven wins and championship contention in 2013.

The Toyotas have been fast all throughout Charlotte Speedweeks thus far. JGR driver Hamlin won the All-Star Race last weekend and sat on the pole for that race, and then one week later, the JGR and MWR machines owned the practice charts for this Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. It is impossible to pinpoint where the speed is coming from (that information is proprietary, as one would imagine), but the speed is undoubtedly real.

The question of course is whether or not the Toyota teams will be able to carry their speed over to Sunday. The 600 is the greatest test of equipment that this sport has to offer, and as such, a strong run across the board by the Toyotas on Sunday would indicate that the Japanese automaker has found it’s footing in this sport once more.

Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 Coca-Cola 600

This year on Four Burning Questions, I will share my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!

  • Jimmie Johnson ($27.75)– His team has found the speed that he was missing last week in the All-Star Race. He’s also the defending winner of the 600.
  • Kurt Busch ($25.50) – Had perhaps the fastest car in the field last week and knows how to win this race. He won this event in 2010.
  • Kasey Kahne ($24.75) – He’s the best driver at Charlotte, hands down. He’s starting deep in the field as well, so that boosts his fantasy value even more.
  • David Ragan ($11.75) – He’s shown more speed this weekend than he has at any race this year thus far. And he’s still a damn good value at $11.75
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($12.75) –  Not a bad value for the price, and RFR cars have improved in recent weeks.
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Slight quibble, the last question should have been a two parter. Will the identicars decaled up like Toyotas show muscle, and does anyone outside the three bought and paid for subsidiaries in the Fox booth give a crap? And about the aero package………….sorry dozed off.


Hate to say it, but thought that this was a bit of “whistling past the graveyard”. In other words trying to be somewhat optimistic about what has the possibility of being another stinker. But we can always hope.

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