Track Talk: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

While every NASCAR Sprint Cup race is truly a test of endurance and agility for those behind the wheel and those who go over the wall to make those glorious pit stops, none will compare to Sunday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

A tradition since 1960, this race, formerly known as the World 600, was meant to compete against the Indianapolis 500.  Although both races have traditionally been held on the same day since 1974, both serve a different and great purpose for their respective series.  As the Indianapolis 500 is essentially the IndyCar equal to the Daytona 500 for the open wheel drivers, the Coca-Cola 600 is truly a bit of a stock car rendition of the Rolex 24 endurance race.

Drivers are likely making last minute preparations as of press time to prepare for the long 600 miles they’ll be subjected to in their stock cars in a race that typically has three phases.  A third of this race is held during late afternoon while the middle third is at dusk while the final third is under the Charlotte/Concord moonlight.  Adding a wrinkle to the already challenging race is the threat of rain from a tropical system off the Southeast coast of the US although the hopes are for a full race when all is said and done on Sunday night.

Pit crews will need to be prepared for at least five pit stops because of the package that’s been prevalent all season long.  The balance between an aero package that promotes on-track action and a Goodyear tire package that gives up a bit compared to those in the past will be some of the factors for the drivers and teams who are thinking about nothing else but a win in this crown jewel race.

Jimmie Johnson has been known to make Charlotte Motor Speedway as his house but he’s also got some “interested buyers” of his domain including Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano to name a few.  Needless to say, this is perhaps one race where making a prediction is an accomplishment as just about anything can and will happen in the longest race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

With a busy but amazing race awaiting us, let’s get this preview started with our TPF Track Talk team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Question 1
Who says you can't go home to No. 4?

Who says you can’t go home to No. 4?

Kevin Harvick agreed to an extension with Stewart-Haas Racing which makes next season his first in the Cup Series under the Ford banner.  How big is this for SHR to keep the 2014 champion with their organization?

Cassidy :  This transition is huge for SHR by not only Harvick switching to a Ford but also for team owner Tony Stewart.  Both drivers have been very Chevy heavy for their whole time in the NASCAR series.   By having both of these drivers agreeing to switch to Ford, I believe we can expect good things.

Conley :  It’s huge for the organization. Harvick is the only one showing success for SHR. Busch runs well but not to the point Harvick has done. They need the leader on that team and with Stewart getting out of the car, Harvick is that guy.  I have to add, I’m thrilled with the timing of this announcement so they could stick it right in the face of the media that was talking about Harvick leaving.

Fesko :  This is a huge deal for SHR as Harvick is its best driver. Kurt Busch is fast and Danica Patrick is marketable, but it’s Harvick that has consistently gotten the team on television the past three years. Having his expertise around will definitely help the team as it transitions to the blue oval.

Shoppe :  This is great news for SHR to have their star driver back next year. Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing have been one of the most potent combinations in NASCAR the last few years and it’s the best possible situation for both to stick together. This extension really shows the commitment that SHR put with Harvick since he is such a dedicated Chevy driver and the team is switching to Ford next year. It is great for all involved to finally put the rumors to rest and focus on racing.

Hobbs :  Kevin Harvick is the leader of that team without a doubt; Kurt Busch is obviously second. But for that team to overcome the obstacle of changing from the best manufacturer to possibly the worst one, it is critical to have the experience of Harvick in the stables. The question that lingers for me is if switching to Ford cannot live up to Harvick’s reputation, how long before Harvick starts wanting out?

Hull :  It’s no surprise that Kevin Harvick decided to stay with Stewart-Haas Racing. This is the organization that not only revitalized his career, but helped him to win his first ever Sprint Cup Championship. So yes, it’s safe to say that it is really big for this organization. It is big because even though Kevin Harvick has typically been associated with Chevrolet, it shows that he has a lot of trust in the organization,and the people who work on his team. He wants to go out there and win another championship, which would also be big for this organization.

Copple :  I for one didn’t think he’d jump ship just because the organization was switching manufacturers. All of the rumors actually made me laugh! But in all seriousness, it’s a really good thing that SHR has locked down Harvick for the foreseeable future. With Tony Stewart retiring, bringing in a new driver, and I’m sure there will be some shakeup between the team members as well, it’ll be good to have a recent Cup champion under the roof. SHR is going to be a strong team but it might take them some time to get there after this big switch.

Question 2
Three wide at Charlotte isn't for the weak. (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Three wide at Charlotte isn’t for the weak. (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Reviewing last Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race, in terms of the racing action, was it a drastic change from years’ past in terms of the on-track product for progress with this season’s package and perhaps into the immediate future for Cup racing?

Cassidy :  I feel like a lot of blame was put on Keselowski for the way the All-Star Race turned out.  However, I feel it wasn’t any worse than any other format in the past.  No matter the All-Star format, fans always seem to have negative thoughts on the race structure.

When I went in 2014, the buzz from fans was the same way. I am not sure if the issue is the “lack of racing” due to the segments or another issue but fans are not sold on the All-Star Race. Personally, I enjoy the different formats and how the million dollar win does not rely on the set up of the car but the teamwork and strategy put into place by the crew and driver.

Conley :  This topic has gotten under my skin all week. With the overall aero changes for 2016, we’ve seen decent racing.  It’s not quite comparable to what we had in 2014 but it’s getting there.  Then we had the few slight changes to the rear end of the cars just for this race to showcase possible changes to 2017.

I think those were a success and helped but 50 lap runs in the All-Star race is too much.  We had restarts that added excitement as we always see and a short 13-lap run to close it out.  If not for Joey Logano, we are talking about a horrible final stint.  Kyle Larson wins that by over four seconds…in 13 laps. The All-Star Race has become a test session and is no way a decent comparison to the rest of the year. Quality of over all on track action…5-10: the season itself is a 6.

Shoppe :  Putting all the confusion and controversy aside for the moment, it was a day full of great racing! For the first time in years, the event lived up to the excitement promised to the fans. The Showdown finishes were exceptional and the All-Star race finish had the first final segment pass for the win in many years. I’d say it was a drastic change and hopefully this improvement continues.

Hobbs :  I did not watch the entire race so I cannot say on this. I think the reason Joey Logano won is that last segment played out in his favor. What I did see is there seemed to be more passing, but it is time to move the location of this race or just not have it at all.

Hull :  The racing this year has been amazing. Thankfully, this package has delivered so far. Even though the race was very confusing, you cannot say that the racing was bad. Even the Sprint Showdown was the most exciting it has been not only due to the package, but the talented rookies who are now in the sport. This year’s package has been awesome.

Copple :  The racing was pretty stellar. The format? Not so much. But I think the absurdity of the format helped with the on-track racing result just as much as the tires, downforce package and everything else. I think we will see some of that return this weekend but with such a long race…who knows what will happen!

Question 3
Land of confusion.

Land of confusion.

On the same subject, there was undoubtedly some confusion during the All-Star Race which somewhat overshadowed the on-track action we saw at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Of course, considering that the race goes on next year, how can NASCAR correct what went on in this year’s race to make the majority satisfied no matter their finishing position?

Conley :  K.I.S.S. It’s that easy. Keep It Simple Stupid. Quit trying to manufacture entertainment. Line’em up. Race’em to a point. Stop’em. pit’em and race’em again. Rinse, lather, repeat. If you want to throw an inversion in, fine. There are too many “gimmicks” and it’s been getting worse and worse with each passing year. Or just get rid of it all together. We could use an extra weekend off.

Shoppe :  This was just a rare situation where NASCAR wasn’t prepared for every possible scenario. When Jamie McMurray spun to bring out the yellow at the end of segment one, cars were trapped a lap down and in need of a wave around. To me, the failure to send those cars around the pace car was the first of many mistakes. Apparently, the typical wave-around rule was not implemented in this race like normal. If NASCAR had called an audible and fixed that situation, a lot of confusion could have been prevented. Hopefully, NASCAR will take a hard look at what happened and either make a simpler format in the future or do something else entirely.

Hobbs :  NASCAR needs to talk to Bruton Smith and say, “Hey man, the fans want this race elsewhere. Let’s make that happen!” Or do something to keep it interesting while not making the rules up as you go along. This year’s format came from ideas of Brad Keselowski; take it a step further and have the driver make up the rules. Have the driver say how many laps, how many segment, and exactly what the rules are. If the drivers make it happen, they have no one to blame but themselves if they don’t understand what is going on. These are the all-stars of our sport and they should be making the rules. In speaking of all-stars, the 20 car minimum needs to go away. That is half of the field and while every driver is great, half the field is not considered an “all-star.” Stick to the one fan vote winner and the rest are just winners and champions because THAT is what an all-star is.

Hull :  I think one of the main things that needs to be done is to keep it simple because NASCAR put too many rules into what is supposed to be a fun event.  It did nothing but confuse people. I think that next year, they need to keep it simple, and quit making up the rules as it goes. NASCAR fans and drivers love simplicity so we need to stick to that.

Copple :  I may be one of the few who loved this format. I loved how unbelievably insane it was. This race should throw drivers, teams, fans and analysts for a loop every year. It shouldn’t be predictable. It should be formatted in a way where drivers and teams really need to be at the top of their game the entire time yet still have to worry about strategy. The pit draw and reversal of the field they did at the end of Segment 2 was brilliant. I love the unpredictability of it. I say…change it up again next year! Maybe the defending champion should decide on the segments and formats. Or pick a retired driver and have them come up with the format. Now there is an idea!

Question 4
One of the best stories thus far in 2016 has been Trevor Bayne. (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

One of the best stories thus far in 2016 has been Trevor Bayne. (Photo Credit: Zach Darrow)

Roush Fenway Racing has found some speed in the past few months as they’ve become a contender at the intermediate tracks.  Does this trend continue in the longest race of the season and who from their camp has the best shot at scoring a win in the 600?

Cassidy :  I think that Greg Biffle is long overdue for a win.  Over his career, Biffle has had some successful finishes at Charlotte and showed he knows his way around the track during All-Star weekend.  It feels as though Greg’s career is winding down but I think he’s got a few more wins in him.

Conley :  I wouldn’t say Roush as an overall organization has found speed. I’d certainly say Trevor Bayne has found speed. He’s been the top finisher in six out of the 13 races. Biffle is next is next with four and then Stenhouse but those top finishes are closer to 20th than 10th with a handful of top-fives. Biffle is a veteran but not the leader that organization needs or has had with Kenseth and Edwards and even back to Mark Martin. It’s climbing but they are a long long way from the peak.

Fesko :  I’d say it continues in the future and the Coke 600 is a perfect avenue for the team to contend as they have plenty of time to fix issues. Out of the three drivers in the RFR stable, I’d say Trevor Bayne has the ability to win this weekend. He won a Showdown segment and battled with Kurt Busch a lot as the laps wound down in the main event. Remember that his team wasn’t opposed to making gutsy strategy calls earlier this season and such a call just might net Bayne his second career win.

Shoppe :  I’d say that Roush Fenway Racing is in the best place they have been in a few years. For once, there are reasons to be optimistic with the RFR team. I expect decent runs to continue from their three Ford drivers. However, I’m not ready to say they are back to contending for wins regularly as of yet. There is still work to be done. Luckily they have had patient sponsors like Fastenal that have re-signed.

Hobbs :  I hope so. Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle certainly made noise at the All-Star race and that entire organization has to be thrilled. The young guys on the team both have an average finish of 18.25. 2 non-points victories on that team is also something to be happy about. If they can WIN, they can certainly win when it counts. I am hoping things are truly turning around for the team as they have been rebuilding for too long now. When we look at the Coca-Cola 600 and we look at these three drivers, being the veteran, Greg Biffle has a chance to make the most noise, but Trevor Bayne did win the first segment in the All-Star Showdown race. And who knows, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. might just surprise everyone.

Hull :  I think that the strong showing they had in the in the Sprint Showdown (they put TWO drivers in the All-Star Race) will continue on for the 600. After all, Greg Biffle finished 2nd to Carl Edwards last year. Since Charlotte is known as their better tracks, they could do very well this weekend. This will raise the morale of the organization, which has been low since losing Carl Edwards and their poor performance last season.

Copple :  I don’t know if I’d say they’ve found speed but they are definitely fairing better than they have the last few years. Something changed within the organization, it could have just been something minor but whatever it is, it’s working. They need to keep up with this upward tick and use it to improve even more. The fact that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle have yet to win…the organization has a long way to go but they are making some noticeable improvements. I hope they have a strong run this weekend at the 600 and it would be exciting to see Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne run up front and get the W!

Excellent insights, team!  We’re definitely ready for the biggest day in motorsports to date!  Before we get to our race picks for the 600, let’s review our results from Dover and check out those points standings as well!
Dover was a truly cruel beast to some...

Dover was a truly cruel beast to some…

...Kathleen Cassidy continues to lead the way in the points race.

…Kathleen Cassidy continues to lead the way in the points race.

We all know how long the Coca-Cola 600 will be in terms of the endurance and action that’ll be prevalent at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  Let’s get to it by revealing our picks for Sunday night’s crown jewel at the Queen City!
Different strokes for different folks!

Different strokes for different folks!

Tiongson :  I see the Toyota/Joe Gibbs Racing Express continuing to make their trips to Victory Lane.  Come Sunday evening, it’ll be Carl Edwards scoring consecutive Coca-Cola 600 wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Cassidy :  Back-to-back winning weekends for Joey Logano and his 22 team!

Conley :  Celebrating Memorial Day in Victory Lane with a Coke 600 victory will be Joey Logano as he’ll complete a Charlotte sweep.

Fesko :  Going with Kyle Larson tonight!

Shoppe :  Kyle Busch is my pick.

Hobbs :  Stats say ol Happy Harvick but Ashley (Ed. Note: Yes, Hobbs speaks in third person.) thinks it is time that Kasey Kahne‘s good start to the season is met with another Coca-Cola 600 victory!

Hull :  I think that Martin Truex Jr. will seek his redemption  and win this year’s Coca-Cola 600.

Copple :  I’m going with Kevin Harvick!

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! We’d like to thank Charlotte Motor Speedway for allowing us to expand our coverage in the past 10 days. We would also like to thank our photographer Zach Darrow of Prime 39 Photography for being our eyes on the track.  You can expect more of his works to be a part of TPF in the future.

How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Last but not least, let’s not forget that on this Memorial Day weekend, this is one that we can enjoy because of those who gave all for our country.  For the brave men and women who sacrificed themselves to protect our nation and remembered how the good of the many outweighed the few, take a moment to remember the true meaning of this holiday break.  

 

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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