Memorial Day weekend has always been bookmarked for racing. It's a Sunday trifecta that starts with the Grand Prix of Monaco (Formula One), jumps to the Indianapolis 500, open-wheel racing's American Super Bowl, and ends with NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It's every motorsports fan's wildest dream.
But COVID-19? It's an expert these days at smashing your dreams to pieces.
As this international pandemic continues, then, we'll all have to be content with the one race out of those three still scheduled to run Sunday: the Coca-Cola 600. Now, expectations are higher for NASCAR's longest race on the schedule, celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2020. Its presence will have to pacify millions of INDYCAR fans as a consolation prize, brokenhearted their biggest race won't run for the first time since 1945. At least a makeup date is scheduled for August; the streets of Monaco won't light up again until May 2021 for F1.
Back in Charlotte, NASCAR's crown jewel of the Queen City also serves an important purpose; hometown bragging rights. Almost all race shops and Cup Series teams are located in this part of North Carolina, home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame since 2010. Daytona may be the birthplace of stock car racing but Charlotte is where it grew up into a Big Boy sport.
Its 600-mile marathon remains the ultimate trial for man and machine, an endurance test which takes over four hours to complete. It's no surprise, then the track lends itself to veterans, although the list of first-time winners reveals a Dean's list of current and future Hall of Famers. Series champions David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth are just a few of those who've earned their maiden victory here.
Until recently, clean air reigned at this cookie-cutter oval which suffered under the past decade of NASCAR aerodynamic evolution. A "levigation" experiment in the mid-2000s went awry and in the past few years, both Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have put fans to sleep with dominant performances. (In 2016, Truex led a record 392 of 400 laps.) Competition sagged so much on the oval NASCAR turned its second date into an infield road course, creating the wildly popular ROVAL in 2018.
But a funny thing happened with NASCAR's new 550 horsepower package last season: it sparked a Charlotte comeback. Truex earned his second 600 win but only after fighting through a wild, competitive race that featured 16 cautions, the most at this track in 14 years. The race's 30 lead changes were the most since 2014 as the leader's clean air advantage was kept in check (at least during a short run).
Expect another barnburner of a race on Sunday. Truex, in particular, is in need of a boost; he's without a top-five finish in six 2020 starts. Teammate Kyle Busch is motivated after a Wednesday night mistake wrecked Chase Elliott, led to a middle-finger salute and caused an awkward apology on national television. Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who flashed some speed since NASCAR's COVID-19 return, could be angling for one last victory at a racetrack they once called "Jimmie's house" due to his dominance here.
But this race, especially during the unpredictability of this pandemic, could tilt back toward NASCAR's future talent. William Byron, still winless on the Cup level, is driving the same No. 24 Chevrolet Jeff Gordon broke through with in a teary-eyed Victory Lane in 1994. Matt DiBenedetto has worked wonders with the Wood Brothers this season, one of NASCAR's legendary teams sitting one win short of 100. And even rookie Tyler Reddick, last year's Charlotte oval winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, could stand a chance as the ultimate dark horse.
Underdogs and favorites alike will pause during this race Sunday in a special memorial salute to our nation's veterans. I'm sure a tribute to the heroes fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis will be on the agenda, too.
NASCAR's hope is that the race itself proves just as memorable. Carrying the weight of all motorsports this Memorial Day weekend will prove no easy task as the world continues to grapple with the emotional fallout from this pandemic.
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin earned the win in Wednesday night's Darlington sprint race when Mother Nature cut him a break. Staying out on old tires, the No. 11 Toyota seemed no match for a long list of contenders behind him on fresh rubber. However, that Elliott-Busch wreck on a restart, combined with a raging downpour, turned the tables his way as the race ended 20 laps early with him out front.
It was the driver's third victory at The Track He Has No Problems Taming. Hamlin's average finish of 7.2 at Darlington trumps Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt (11.4) and David Pearson (12.0). That duo combined for 19 victories between them at this egg-shaped oval, putting Hamlin in pretty exclusive company.
Who's at the Back: Ryan Preece
Wednesday, we featured JTG Daugherty Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in this space. But it's Preece, Wednesday's pole-sitter, who finished dead last this time, hitting the wall and then blowing an engine in his No. 37 Chevrolet. That's his third DNF in just six starts this season, leading to a red-faced Twitter rant about a growing sophomore slump.
Near the bottom (32nd) in the point standings, Preece is already 81 points behind William Byron for the final playoff spot. He’s also 35 behind Ryan Newman — a driver who’s competed in only three races this season.
Chase Briscoe completed a heartwarming story by winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series race Thursday just days after discovering his wife suffered a miscarriage. Briscoe held off Cup champion Kyle Busch on the final lap while fighting back tears; it’s his first career Darlington victory. Briscoe later revealed Busch's wife, Samantha, had reached out with her own experiences earlier in the week as the couple had suffered similar heartbreak in their own family last year.
Chase Elliott has spoken with Kyle Busch after their incident Friday night knocked the No. 9 Chevrolet out of the race. "I don't think he wrecked me on purpose," Elliott said. "I get that mistakes happen, that's part of life and I get it... He apologized to me. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the result, so at the end of the day, it still cost us a shot at the win." Elliott wound up 38th while Busch earned a runner-up finish.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Nielsen rating for Wednesday's Cup Series race at Darlington, delayed by rain, that brought the sport back down to earth. NASCAR's return from its COVID-19 quarantine just three days earlier posted a 3.7.
Average finish this season for points leader Kevin Harvick, the only driver to finish inside the top 10 in every race thus far.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I'm going to go outside the box here and choose Team Penske's Joey Logano. Last year's Charlotte runner-up has a victory at this track (2015) and 10 career top-10 finishes in 20 starts. There have been some rough runs in between but Logano already has shown strength with the 2020 version of NASCAR's handling package. He won two of the four races run before the pandemic, including at another 1.5-mile oval, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Logano will have better value than a Joe Gibbs Racing trio that may underperform. Kyle Busch is your best bet of that group, leading laps in four straight Charlotte events and winning the 2018 edition of this race. But Martin Truex Jr.? He's yet to produce consistent chemistry with new crew chief James Small.
I think you have to go Jimmie Johnson entering a week of what will be his final oval starts at this track. Eight victories in 35 career races here include four straight in the 2004-05 season. As of late, Johnson's performance has ticked back up at this oval, running 7th, 5th and 8th in his last three starts here.
Third-year driver William Byron won the pole for this race last year and can't be counted out. He led 31 laps in that race, coming home ninth, and is paired with a Hendrick Motorsports group that flashed some speed at Darlington the past two races. Don't forget, he was the iRacing star during the height of the pandemic, winning three eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series events when the sport was sidelined.
It's hard not to take a look at rookie Tyler Reddick, last year's Charlotte Xfinity winner. He'll be making his first Cup start on this oval but is no stranger to success on intermediates. He earned a ninth at another 1.5-mile oval, Kansas Speedway, last year and earned his first top-10 finish of 2020 at Darlington earlier this week.
Looking for a true longshot? How about Corey Lajoie of Go FAS Racing. The No. 32 team, running with better equipment this year, was a surprise 12th with Lajoie in last May's Coca-Cola 600. They were 16th at Las Vegas earlier this year running this handling package and this type race can favor them, too. Underdog teams who conserve equipment and “survive” until the finish can steal a top 20 or even a top 15 here.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the vegasinsider.com chart with 4/1 odds at last check although Martin Truex Jr. is close behind at 9/2. Last Sunday's Darlington winner, Kevin Harvick, sits at 11/2.
Your best longshot bet? That would be Reddick at 50/1.
What I Think
The racing up front has been competitive this year in the NASCAR Cup Series but we've already had a couple of two-time winners. I'm going to say the cream rises to the top once again as Joey Logano breaks through for his first Coca-Cola 600 victory (and third overall this season).
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.