NASCAR heads to Charlotte this weekend fresh off its most competitive All-Star Race in a decade – maybe more. A restrictor plate-plus package first used in the sport’s XFINITY Series last year passed its Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut with flying colors. There were 12 official lead changes in 93 laps, one fewer than the Kansas race the previous week, while cars often raced three and four-abreast on the 1.5-mile oval.
For the first time in months, Nielsen ratings were within striking distance of last year’s numbers. NASCAR officials this week were finally breathing a sigh of relief.
But this weekend’s race brings back a sobering reality. The sport’s longest race of the season gets paired again with the old handling package that’s turned intermediate style races into routs in 2018. The 600-mile event, once a testament to both man and machine, also endured just four mechanical failures last season (and none by major teams). Open-wheel’s biggest race, the Indianapolis 500, has been gaining steam by comparison and will host Danica Patrick’s career finale. Barring a surprise, it’s likely to retain its title as the weekend’s largest Memorial Day Weekend racing audience.
That said, we’ll see if Saturday night’s All-Star Race is a turning point in what’s been a difficult start for NASCAR. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, while hosting the Indy 500 this weekend, said this week they’re open to NASCAR using the new plate package for their Brickyard 400 at the track this September. There’s a baseline to build on here that will likely become the 2019 handling package on intermediate tracks after a few more tweaks.
There are storylines to follow this weekend, too. Kyle Busch is on the pole and looking to finish off his trophy collection of wins at every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series track. Kevin Harvick will have to fight from the rear after failing pre-race qualifying inspection three times. Martin Truex Jr., who has dominated the Coca-Cola 600 here the past few seasons, will have to climb up from 15th.
Notably absent from that list, though are any drivers doing the Indy-Charlotte double, a once popular 1,100-mile trek last attempted by Kurt Busch in 2014. It’s a mystery to me why both racing series, packed with owners who attempt each event, won’t try reviving a tradition that once captivated the fan base. Especially on the eve of Patrick’s finale, who wouldn’t have wanted to see Kyle Larson as an Indy 500 rookie with Chip Ganassi? Or perhaps a return of Busch or AJ Allmendinger to that race?
It’s just one more idea NASCAR should be tacking on to its future. The goal this weekend, after several days of celebration is to turn around and survive the present.
59th Annual Coca-Cola 600
Time: 6:20 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
lather. Rinse. Repeat. It doesn’t matter what handling package is underneath these cars, where Harvick starts or what obstacles come his way. The No. 4 Ford is simply lights out right now. Period. End of sentence.
Winning the All-Star Race and its $1 million bonus, Harvick is now in line to win three straight points-paying events for what will be the second time this season. Sure, he’ll have to do it from 39th this time around. But at the moment, this team appears unstoppable on these 1.5-mile ovals that make up the bulk of NASCAR’s 36-race schedule.
Who’s at the Back: Chase Elliott
What could be NASCAR’s new Most Popular Driver this season has also got to be its most frustrated. One week after a late-race fracas with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott needed the Fan Vote after missing three chances to make the All-Star Race through the Monster Energy Open. He wound up fifth in the main event, a respectable performance but one in which he didn’t lead a lap.
That’s not exactly what the doctor ordered for a driver who’s struggled to turn potential into reality. For the season, Elliott has drastically underachieved and remains winless in his third year on tour. He’s led just eight laps, sits last of the 16 drivers currently inside the NASCAR Playoffs and qualified a ho-hum 22nd for the Coca-Cola 600.
Jeff Gordon headlined the five-member, 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class announced this Wednesday. But the 93-time race winner and four-time Cup champion was also, weirdly enough, not a unanimous pick in his first year of eligibility. Gordon joins current NASCAR owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush as 2019 picks in a group that’s reflective of the sport’s modern era. Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki, drivers both killed off the track in separate 1993 incidents, were the final two selections. Among those names from NASCAR’s older era left off the ballot this year: Buddy Baker, Ray Fox, Red Farmer, John Holman and Ralph Moody.
Three years after getting his hauler stolen during a NASCAR race weekend down at Atlanta Motor Speedway Johnathan Cohen has returned to the sport. His Team Xtreme, newly minted as NY Racing, is running the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend with sponsorship from Steakhouse Elite. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet as the car appears to be returning to the circuit full-time. Cohen was last heard from after a warrant was issued for his arrest in New Jersey claiming he failed to pay tens of thousands to business partners following a failed nightclub venture in New York City. Cohen, however, appears to have put those legal issues behind him.
Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. was honored Monday by President Donald Trump at the White House. Also in attendance was NASCAR CEO Brian France, making one of his first public appearances since it was confirmed his family is exploring the sale of the sport. Trump, who has used NASCAR in his criticism of the NFL over their handling of the national anthem, was quick to praise the fan base and its drivers. “One thing I know about NASCAR, they do indeed, Brian, stand for the playing of the national anthem, right?” Trump said. “They do indeed. Somebody said maybe you shouldn't say that, that will be controversial. I said 'That's OK. NASCAR is not going to mind it at all, right, fellas?'"
NASCAR by the Numbers
Different winners in the first 12 races of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season. That’s the fewest since the sport expanded to its current 16-driver, win-to-get-in playoff format in 2014.
Different winners in the first 10 races of the NASCAR XFINITY Series season. Unfortunately, only three of those are full-time drivers who will be eligible to compete for the series championship at the end of the year: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick. Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. Combined, this trio has won nine of the first 12 races and there’s a compelling reason to pick each of them Sunday. For Harvick, it’s pretty self-explanatory. A win in the Monster Energy All-Star Race already has them entering Sunday with momentum here; the No. 4 car is the fastest car in the field each week unless they beat themselves. Starting 39th also gives you plenty of position differential points if Harvick winds up climbing to the front.
Busch, meanwhile, is on a quest to win at Charlotte for the first time in his MENCS career. Second last year, he’s led 85 laps in his past two starts and is motivated to win one of the sport’s crown jewels. And finally, there’s Truex, who dominated this race to the tune of 392 laps led two years ago en route to a record-setting victory.
You might not be able to squeeze all three on your roster. But you should try.
Jamie McMurray has had a year to forget, potentially his last one driving the No. 1 Chevrolet. But a strong qualifying effort (seventh) puts him in position to contend at a racetrack where he’s won in the past. A 12th and a fifth last season at Charlotte plus the success of McMurray’s teammate, Kyle Larson, in recent weeks should leave him solidly in contention.
Last year’s winner (and Daytona 500 champion) Austin Dillon has had a miserable season since February. But he’s also got a solid Charlotte track record (seven top-20 finishes in eight starts) and has the fuel mileage necessary to repeat if it comes down to pit strategy. Either way, a top-10 effort would work wonders to put an inconsistent No. 3 Chevrolet team back on track.
Kasey Kahne had a reasonable top-10 finish in the All-Star Race driving the underfunded No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet. They’re introducing a new sponsor (Thorne) this weekend and Kahne, with four career Charlotte victories, has had success at this track in the past. This car ran 19th with Michael McDowell here in 2017 and is capable of a top-20 effort once again.
Newly available, Matt Kenseth registers at a lower-tier level in some leagues but the past history of the 2003 Cup Series champ speaks for itself. He qualified 17th in his new No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing ride and won the pole for the All-Star Race last weekend. A top-10 finish is not out of the question here.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the way with 3/1 odds while Kyle Busch sits second at 7/2.
What I Think
I’m going to go with Busch on this one. Charlotte is a bucket list item, the No. 18 Toyota driver starts from the pole and he’ll have the track position (and the speed) all night to get the job done.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)