After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the greatest Sunday in racing has come together. NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be the cherry on top of a racing trifecta that includes Formula 1's Grand Prix of Monaco (9 a.m. ET, ESPN) and the Indianapolis 500 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
Both Monaco and Indy come into the weekend surging in popularity. Formula 1 continues to enjoy record ratings inside the U.S.; the Miami Grand Prix last month drew almost 2.6 million viewers, coming within striking distance of NASCAR's 2.61 million watching the race at Darlington that same weekend. F1 will expand to three events within the country, minimum in 2023 as Netflix’s "Drive To Survive" remains the go-to motorsports-related show on streaming.
Meanwhile, over at Indy, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is raising eyebrows. After a two-year struggle in his move to the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson qualified 12th for his first Indy 500 and has a legitimate shot to win the race. It’s the closest to an Indy-NASCAR crossover the sport has had in recent years after drivers like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch used to attempt both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
That leads us to the third and final event on the day: NASCAR. It’s a series also enjoying a surge in popularity but one that faces a challenge with the Coca-Cola 600, a race that’s been a snoozer in recent years and now looks to be the weakest one within this trifecta. The longest race on the schedule, it used to be a test of endurance but now Charlotte is home to some of the worst aerodynamic issues NASCAR faces on any track.
Three times in the last six years, Charlotte’s 600 winner has led more than 300 laps. Last year’s race featured just one caution outside of stage breaks while only one driver failed to finish due to mechanical problems. At a track that should be a showcase for the sport’s recent success, the 1.5-mile oval has instead become the prime example of how intermediate ovals left the sport stagnant throughout much of the late 2000s and 2010s.
NASCAR’s Next Gen chassis, of course, offers hope the racing at Charlotte can be fixed. Positive examples this year include races at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, fellow intermediates that produced some of the best events in their history in 2022. But there’s also Texas Motor Speedway and the All-Star Race last week, arguably the worst event of the year, and proof the Next Gen isn’t a catch-all.
A crown jewel event like this one brings out the best in the sport’s big teams and it’s no surprise the last six Charlotte races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, or Team Penske over the past few seasons. But know occasionally there are upsets that do sneak through: Austin Dillon won the 2017 edition of this race on fuel mileage and Casey Mears did the same in 2007 for his lone Cup win.
Let’s see if NASCAR’s longest race can get its mojo back now that the greatest Sunday in racing is put back together again.
Date: Sunday, May 29
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Their performance at the All-Star Race notwithstanding, Hendrick has clearly been the best-performing team through the first half of the 2022 regular season. All four drivers have won in the first 13 races, clinching a playoff bid while Chase Elliott leads the standings by 52 points over Ryan Blaney. What’s unexpected is their worst-performing driver is actually the sport’s defending champion, Kyle Larson. Larson sits ninth in points but someone who was at his best last season once the series hit its summer stretch.
Who's at the Back: Chase Briscoe
Briscoe was one of the sport’s hottest drivers early this year, posting his first career win at Phoenix in March. But the sophomore hasn’t recorded a top-5 finish since, leading just one race in the last seven events: Bristol Dirt. We all know how that ended up, last-lap contact with Tyler Reddick ruining the chance for the win for either driver while handing it to Kyle Busch instead.
Former Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen will make his NASCAR Cup Series debut at Watkins Glen, running the No. 91 with Trackhouse Racing Team. Raikkonen is running with a new third part-time effort for TRT, titled PROJECT91, whose focus will be on bringing international drivers to NASCAR.
Michael Jordan's 23XI Racing team says they’re placing a hold on future expansion plans until NASCAR secures its next media rights deal. The two-car organization, which just won at Kansas two weeks ago with Kurt Busch, is looking to see how much additional TV money filters to the teams once NASCAR's new deal is signed, presumably early in 2023. The current TV contract runs through 2024 and garage buzz persists multiple networks are interested in jumping on board along with current partners FOX and NBC. Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported this week ESPN will 100 percent speak with NASCAR officials about their next deal.
Shell/Pennzoil extended their sponsorship of Team Penske's No. 22 car this week. The deal is for a minimum of 30 races and extends through the 2027 season, potentially foreshadowing a contract extension for lead driver Joey Logano. Logano is currently signed through the end of the 2023 season with the team.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Winners through the first 13 races of the regular season. William Byron and Ross Chastain are the only drivers to have won twice.
Time it took to complete the Coca-Cola 600 last year, even with just four caution flags. A similar time this year would edge Atlanta Motor Speedway (three hours, 57 minutes and 14 seconds) as the year’s longest event.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For Martin Truex Jr., Charlotte offers an opportunity to break through. Truex has yet to earn his first win this season and this track has been one of his best historically, posting three victories in his last nine Charlotte oval starts. Part of a four-car Joe Gibbs Racing quartet to finish inside the top 6 at Kansas, it’s clear the Toyota teams have gotten their act together on intermediates. Don’t get left behind.
Ryan Blaney will be a popular pick coming off his All-Star Race victory. Just be careful; he’s led just six career laps on the Charlotte oval, posting just one top-10 finish in the Coca-Cola 600 (2020). A better pick might be good friend Chase Elliott, posting an average finish of 1.5 in the last three Charlotte oval races.
Austin Dillon has an affinity for intermediate ovals and a special place in his heart for Charlotte, the site of his first career Cup win. He’s led just 10 laps here in 13 starts but has also posted four top-10 finishes, including a solid sixth in 2021. Dillon remains in the playoff hunt this year due to his consistency, unlike the rollercoaster 2022 of teammate Tyler Reddick and is a solid sleeper pick in a deep field.
Daniel Suarez is looking to flash the type of speed that’s gotten teammate Ross Chastain to victory lane with Trackhouse Racing. 15th in the Coca-Cola 600 last year with this team, he was fifth in the All-Star Race at Texas and is due for a good performance on an intermediate. With just one top-10 finish in the last eight races, the law of averages says Suarez is due to work his way back to the front.
Bubba Wallace has finished no better than 14th in five career Charlotte starts. So why should you trust him in this Coca-Cola 600? Momentum within the whole 23XI Racing organization. Kurt Busch’s victory allows the team to focus on Wallace and his potential playoff bid just as the Toyotas seem to have hit on some speed. The No. 23 team has also shown far more speed than the finishes show in 2022, tripped up by mistakes on pit road.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is in the midst of a run we haven’t seen before from him at JTG Daugherty Racing: three straight top-10 finishes. Now, we head to a racetrack that’s actually been good for him running both the No. 47 and Jack Roush’s No. 17. Stenhouse has six top-15 finishes in the last seven Charlotte races, posting a position differential of plus-17. At some point, this team will come back down to earth; I just don’t expect it to be this week.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds place Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch on top of the list, both boasting +550 odds. Chase Elliott is right behind at +600. As for the longshots? Austin Dillon is +5000 for what would be a surprise second 600 victory.
What I Think
I’m going with Martin Truex Jr. to hit victory lane for the first time this year. But don’t count out Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch or even Denny Hamlin as JGR seems to have found something to challenge Hendrick on these 1.5-mile ovals.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
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