Can Kurt Busch finally get it together for Coca-Cola 600?
1. Can Kurt Busch finally put one together?
There's little doubt Kurt Busch had a solid car for last week's All-Star race. It may have been the best car he's driven since joining Furniture Row Racing late this season. Making things better for Busch, that's two consecutive weekends where FRR rolled out a No. 78 that was more competitive. (He won the pole at Darlington Raceway.)
Together, the stars seem to be aligning for Busch to start taking realistic swings at his first Cup win since being dropped by Penske Racing after the 2011 season. Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Coca-Cola 600 could be just the place.
Busch won his first 600 in 2010 in dominating fashion for Penske. That night, he started second and led 252 of 400 laps. A year later in 2011 Busch led only three laps but still finished fourth.
Thanks to FRR's increasingly tight alliance with Richard Childress Racing -- the No. 78 may well be a fourth RCR team -- Busch is getting faster cars and improved data. FRR is also allotting plenty of funds for the team to do significant testing.
Six hundred miles provide a lot of mistake possibilities for FRR's variably effective pit crews and even more time for Busch to get too hot under the collar to be an effective driver. But both have improved this season with races completed. The second race at Charlotte in a week provides a great barometer to see how far they've really come.
2. Teams roll out patriotic paint schemes for Memorial Day
With the Coca-Cola 600 traditionally falling on Memorial Day weekend, themes of patriotism and remembrance always play first fiddle at the track. Sometimes it's poorly executed -- look no further than the track's tag line proclaiming "Let Freedom Race" -- but mostly it's a cool tribute.
A higher number of teams than normal will roll out special paint schemes this weekend carrying those themes. All three Roush-Fenway Racing cars will use nearly identical graphics that will include various military vehicles and silhouettes of troops in Sunday night's race. Good luck trying to differentiate between those cars in wide shots Sunday night.
Brad Keselowski (pictured right), Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Landon Cassill, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also sport cars featuring special patriotic graphics ranging from red, white and blue stars to camouflage.
3. Late-race track position will be race's deciding factor
Ultimately, Sunday night's 600-miler won't be about who struts to the front at mile 100, 200 or any other number fewer than about 560 in the mileage count.
It will be about the handful of cars near the front after the final caution flag. Look no further than last Saturday night’s All-Star race for proof.
Kasey Kahne won the race off pit road for the final 10 lap segment with teammate Jimmie Johnson not too far behind. A solid restart for Johnson got his No. 48 alongside Kahne and eventually to the lead. Meanwhile, Kyle and Kurt Busch -- each with a pair of wins in the first four segments -- couldn't come close to reasserting their dominance.
Johnson was good, sure, but clean air and track position was even better. Expect more of the same Sunday night. That's par for the course in this age of Sprint Cup racing on high-grip, high-speed tracks like Charlotte.
4. 600 has history of first-time winners
Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth are all former Sprint Cup champions. They also share the distinction of winning the first race of their respective careers in NASCAR's longest event.
More recently, Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears scored their first Cup trophies in CMS' 600-miler.
Could we see a new chapter written for another first-time winner Sunday night? Preliminary favorites Johnson, Kenseth and Kahne would have a bone to pick with that expectation. Should it happen, however, look for the driver to be in a Ford.
Rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made his first career start at Charlotte in 2011 and drove to an 11th-place finish. More recently, Stenhouse appeared to have last month's race at Kansas Speedway within grasp. A poorly timed caution derailed those hopes.
Quasi-teammate Aric Almirola (Stenhouse's Roush-Fenway Racing and Almirola's Richard Petty Racing share extensive chassis and technical information) might also be on deck to nab his first career Sprint Cup win. Almirola started on the Charlotte pole last year but led just three laps en route to a 16th-place finish.
Any first-time winner is looking at a stiff challenge Sunday night, but with the race's history we can't rule it out.
5. Has the Coca-Cola 600 lost some relevance?
Blame the Charlotte re-pave. Blame the new cars. Blame the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Or even blame the resurgence of the Indianapolis 500.
Whatever it is, it sure feels like the Coca-Cola 600 has lost some of its cachet in recent years. Perhaps that's an overreaction from last year's dull event won by Kahne. Or perhaps it’s just indicative of the truth.
For one, the race simply is no longer a true race of endurance. NASCAR Sprint Cup teams have built largely bulletproof race cars, and engines have become a pretty exacting science. Drivers are more in shape and better quality control means fewer broken parts. One hundred extra miles (67 more laps) on top of a 500-mile race just doesn't tax these teams beyond realistic capabilities.
There's no doubt, however, that the 600 has lost some level of importance because it's not part of a bonus series of races like it once was. The 600 used to be part of Winston's bonus program that ultimately awarded an extra $1 million bonus to any driver who could win three of four races, including the Daytona 500, the Talladega spring race, the 600 and Darlington's Southern 500.
Combine that with the Chase for the Sprint Cup that ultimately reduced the importance of winning individual early season races in the name of winning the series championship, and the reduced emphasis starts to make sense.
I'll attend Sunday night's race in the stands for the 17th time in the last 18 years. It's a fun event, a good race and tradition I'll gladly keep. But I don't know how to fix the general feeling that the 600 isn't the race it once was. Here's to hoping the racing can somehow change that Sunday night.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter @GeoffreyMiller.