The Coca-Cola 600 was once the ultimate NASCAR Cup Series test of man and machine. The sport's longest race (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, FOX) would cause equipment breakdowns over the final 100 miles while driver stamina proved crucial in a race that often takes well over four hours to run.
But modern technology has taken the luster off Charlotte Motor Speedway's crown jewel event. Sunday's race is broken down into four 100-lap stages; that give drivers a break every 150 miles of competition. Shorter sprints keep the field bunched together and lead to finishes like 2020, in which 19 cars finished on the lead lap.
It's hard to market a race of survival when everyone, welp, winds up just fine at the end. Last year's race only featured one driver who fell out due to mechanical problems; not a single engine blew over the course of 600 miles. In fact, an event once known for attrition hasn't had a single DNF for engine failure since 2018.
The evolution of NASCAR has left this Charlotte oval behind, condensing a two-week celebration of the sport into a single weekend. Gone is the All-Star Race, shipped off to Texas Motor Speedway while the track's second date has been repurposed and rejuvenated... in the form of an infield road course.
Can the 600 be salvaged? It's still considered a crown jewel trophy, once part of a $1 million dollar bonus as one of the four most important races on the circuit. Races like last year help the cause in which no one driver outright dominated the event. Twice in the last five years, the winner has led a whopping 375 laps or more of this 400-lap race, making their win a foregone conclusion with two hours left to go in the race.
The hometown feel of Charlotte (most drivers and teams are based here) combined with past prestige still help to hype up this race in the garage area. The sport's biggest names often do well, with NASCAR champions Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott each capturing a win in 2020.
Occasionally, though the quirkiness of this race can lead to a surprise breakthrough. Austin Dillon earned his first career victory on fuel mileage here in 2017. Casey Mears and David Reutimann are other recent surprises in the last 15 years of competition. Dillon led Friday practice here and has the experience necessary to pull an upset.
Whatever the result, NASCAR will be looking for fresh momentum surrounding a race that's been wilting against Sunday's major competition: the Indy 500. In the past, drivers have attempted both events, 1,100 miles of racing that brought some extra publicity to both sides. Perhaps with COVID-19 easing a bit and Roger Penske in control of INDYCAR there will be a push to bring those attempts back in 2022.
Date: Sunday, May 30
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Chase Elliott
Elliott finally broke through a winless 2021 by prevailing at Circuit of Americas down in Austin, Texas. The No. 9 Chevrolet was out front when heavy downpours finally shortened a water-logged NASCAR debut on the 3.41-mile road course.
It's the fifth win for Elliott in the last six road course races and puts him back in the spotlight for a year he's slid under the radar (only 81 laps led overall). The reigning NASCAR champion, at times, had often seemed like the fourth fastest of four Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets this season.
But when revealing my midseason awards this week, I was surprised to learn how many loop data categories Elliott heads up despite sitting fifth in the standings. He’s passed the most cars under green this season (1,592), produced the most quality passes (944) and has the highest pass differential (+172). With plenty more road courses on the schedule this season, expect the wins for Elliott (and the hype) to start piling back up.
Who's at the Back: Denny Hamlin
Say what? The NASCAR points leader? While Hamlin has a lead of nearly 100 points over his closest competition, the No. 11 has been struggling a bit in recent weeks. After going 8-for-9 in top-5 finishes to start the year, he’s earned just one in the past five races while producing a position differential of -21. Hamlin is now the only of 11 drivers within the sport's Big 3 organizations (Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports) who hasn't won a race this year.
Chase Elliott's spotter, Eddie D'Hondt, has been suspended indefinitely by NASCAR after being charged with misdemeanor assault. The 62-year-old D'Hondt was arrested on May 12 based on an incident last fall with a woman at a jetski rental facility in North Carolina. Cousin Trey Poole will serve as Elliott's spotter on an interim basis.
Rumors continue to swirl around Brad Keselowski and his expected 2022 move to Roush Fenway Racing as part owner. Keselowski deflected questions this week when asked by reporters about his future, claiming he "can't talk about that, but I appreciate you asking." Current owner Roger Penske was also noncommittal about who would drive the No. 2 Ford next season, his flagship car. "We really haven't made a decision at this point," Penske said. "We've got a contract with Brad through the end of the year and we'll make a decision when that's over."
The reigning NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion has finally picked up some consistent primary sponsorship. LiftKits4Less has signed on to back Sheldon Creed for 12 races as the Californian defends his title running for GMS Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of laps run under caution at Circuit of the Americas last Sunday. Rain hampered visibility and led to a number of nasty wrecks which made it tough to produce long green-flag runs.
Average finish of Kaulig Racing in five total Cup starts (that includes three top-10 finishes). The NASCAR Xfinity Series program, set to move up full-time in 2022, was fifth at Circuit of the Americas with AJ Allmendinger.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to ignore the success of Martin Truex Jr. at Charlotte. Three victories in the past eight races here include a dominant one in 2016 where he led 392 of 400 laps. With his current team at Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex has posted an average finish of 5.3 in three Charlotte starts, making him a shoo-in for a solid run.
It might be time to hop on the Chase Elliott train. A 2020 winner at this track, Elliott posted an average finish of 1.5 in two Charlotte starts last year while piling up 66 laps led. Since the fall of 2017, the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has finished no worse than 11th at CMS.
It's not just a fast practice speed that's got me high on Austin Dillon this weekend. The Richard Childress Racing driver has put together the most consistent season of his career thus far. A season-long average finish of 13.5 is a career high and his five top-10 finishes include two on intermediate-type ovals similar to Charlotte. Add in that 2017 win, plus an eighth-place finish in 2020 and you've got a great mid-level addition to the roster.
Kurt Busch has only one career Charlotte victory, back in 2010, but has eight top-10 finishes at the track in his last 10 starts. Chip Ganassi Racing showed decent speed at COTA before Busch's late off-track excursion and could be poised to turn a disappointing season around.
Corey LaJoie has two top-20 finishes at Charlotte in his last three oval races here, overachieving with a single-car, underfunded operation in Go Green Racing. A 20th-place effort last weekend at COTA was a season best outside of February's Daytona 500 and could provide momentum for Sunday.
Rookie Anthony Alfredo also had an impressive run Sunday for Front Row Motorsports, finishing 18th for just his second top-20 run of the season. Alfredo's organization has top-15 speed at Charlotte and ran decently last year with John Hunter Nemechek. It makes him a low-cost, medium-risk add to your roster that just might pay off.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. has 4/1 odds to win, according to vegasinsider.com which leads the way in a betting field crowded with big names at the top. Chase Elliott is next with 11/2 odds, followed by Kyle Busch at 6/1. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson finish out the top-tier drivers with 17/2 odds.
What I Think
Martin Truex Jr. is just too good here. He takes his fourth win of the season at Charlotte and fourth at the track since May 2016.
— 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.