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Podium Preview: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

Certainly, Ryan Blaney seems like a solid pick for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Certainly, Ryan Blaney seems like a solid pick for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Undoubtedly, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte continually tests drivers and teams with a true endurance test. Indeed, the challenge from late afternoon to night presents interesting variables with the cars and those plucky crew chiefs.

Without doubt, the Coca-Cola 600 presents a “Who’s Who” of the legitimate title contenders in the NASCAR Cup Series. Furthermore, the 600 serves as a true test in patience and pacing at the familiar 1.5-mile speedway.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Adam LucasAshley HobbsCody ShoppeKobe LambethLuis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle Raynor, Taylor KitchenTerra Jones and yours truly ponder about possible race contenders and the rain shortened race at COTA!

Podium Preview: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte
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Question 1
Of course, Chase Elliott tells Bubba Wallace about his presence in Podium Preview. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Of course, Chase Elliott tells Bubba Wallace about his presence in Podium Preview. (Photo: Michael Guariglia/The Podium Finish)

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte presents one of the biggest challenges for drivers and teams on finding the right setup. Which driver and team stands out as having the best shot at winning the 600?

Lambeth : If I had to pick one team that stands out from the others, it definitely has to be Hendrick Motorsports. This team is currently in their own zip code while the competition tries to play a game of catch up. Last year, it seemed like Chase Elliott had the race won until a call to pit late ended his chances of victory.

After winning last weekend at a wet COTA, Elliott will certainly ride some momentum at a track where HMS has found much success. Honestly, any of the four Hendrick drivers could have a shot at winning NASCAR’s longest race. Bowman has two wins and the others have visited victory lane once in 2021. The likes of Gibbs and Penske will certainly be in the conversation of potentially winning the Coca-Cola 600. But, I think they will have to go through Hendrick first.

Hobbs : Veteran teams who have done this before have the best shot. I think they have even more of a shot given that they actually get to practice and qualify, thus getting more data to help with their plan. Drivers like Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch benefit greatly from experience.

A driver like Kyle Busch also benefits tremendously from additional track time. So, that might be a problem for the field.

Raynor : With the temperatures being lower than usual and from going to sunlight to nighttime is going to be a challenge for all drivers. I feel like Hendrick and Gibbs will have the best shot at being in victory lane because they know how to adjust the cars. And it seems like Rudy (Fugle) and William (Byron) have dialed it in lately to where I can see them winning.

Kyle Busch has practice back so he and his team have always been good at making the right adjustments for the end. Even with new crew chief Ben (Beshore), he will get it done. 

Shoppe : Hendrick Motorsports has been on fire lately. So, it’s hard to bet against any of them. Kyle Larson has been dominant in leading laps on mile and a halfs this year. But can he close the deal after 600 miles? 

JGR drivers also will be strong with Kyle Busch winning at Kansas and Martin Truex Jr being so strong here in the past! 

Sisoler : I am not sure if any one driver/team combo has the best shot to win the Coca-Cola 600. There are so many factors that go into who can win NASCAR’s closest thing to an endurance race on the schedule.

Joe Gibbs Racing does have drivers who have won it before in Martin Truex Jr (twice) and Kyle Busch. Meanwhile, Stewart-Haas has its own two-time Coke 600 winner in Kevin Harvick.

And last year’s winner, Brad Keselowski over at Penske, can’t be counted out either. The same can be said for all four Hendrick drivers given just how strong HMS has been this year. This group of drivers has to be considered favorites, if you can put favorites on a race that has seen many underdog defy the odds in the past to win.

Lucas : The transition battle from day to night will be interesting. I think we will see the usual brigade of Hendrick vs Gibbs pacing the field this Sunday evening. The first real endurance race of the season will test mental abilities from the series veterans, down to the green horned rookies.

Kyle Larson has been close to winning the past couple of races. But, Lady Luck has not been kind to him in the closing laps. Martin Truex Jr has been money this season and so has his stats at the 600. I think we will be seeing these two fighting for the checkered flag.

Question 2
All in all, did NASCAR get it right when calling last Sunday's race at COTA? (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

All in all, did NASCAR get it right when calling last Sunday’s race at COTA? (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Did NASCAR make the right call to call last Sunday at COTA 14 laps from the finish? Elaborate with your reason.

Torres : Mother Nature can be a cruel one. It’s not fun being on the other side. But considering how drivers weren’t too pleased about the conditions, it was wise. This is nothing new in the world of motorsports. If the conditions aren’t ideal despite being able to run on wet tires, safety becomes paramount.

Formula One being a prime example where you have drivers being vocal like Alain Prost on multiple occasions (Monaco ‘84 and Adelaide ‘89). Niki Lauda sacrificed winning a world title in Fuji ‘76 over it. We lost Jules Bianchi at Suzuka ‘14 due to treacherous conditions.

This was at a time when halos and aeroscreens weren’t a thing. If visibility was bad with an open cockpit, imagine when it’s closed. What I was able to see from COTA, things got bad.

Cole Custer could’ve been hurt over that nasty accident with Martin Truex, Jr. Hard for the spotters to navigate their drivers with poor visibility which ruined other drivers afternoons.

Conditions made the quality of the race real rough. And I still wonder how in the world Kurt Busch didn’t have his day ended from it. The best word to sum up Sunday was Driven, the 2001 CART film.

Racing in the rain can be fun. But, you must consider the competitors’ thoughts. More so when NASCAR hasn’t dealt with torrential downpour from a competition point of view. Back to the drawing board on how to improve rain racing. But, sometimes, you cannot control the weather!

Tiongson : All things considered, it was likely the correct decision with how NASCAR made last minute adjustments with drying up the track and the backstretch between turns 11 and 12. Selfishly, I wanted this race to go the full distance. However, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe expressed concerns about the visibility particularly with the damp backstretch in stage 2.

Safety should be paramount. By all means, NASCAR’s taken some justified criticisms with what happened last weekend. Circuit of the Americas is a premier and renowned venue. With stock car racing not having much exposure to these conditions, it’s a humbling lesson and learning opportunity for NASCAR for the future. I truly hope COTA gets its chance to showcase a real race weekend with Mother Nature being nicer to the Austin area in 2022.

Jones : I don’t know that NASCAR could make a call that was deemed “right” in this situation. Call it early, as they did, and everyone goes crazy because of course we want a full race. But, the conspiracy theories start flying. Was it because who was leading? Or was it really the track conditions and the weather turning worse?

Leave the drivers out in terrible conditions, putting on a less-than-stellar show, and minimizing the likelihood for a return in a future season? No one wins here – except the driver out front. It’s not the first time I’m glad I’m not “that” person to make this decision. 

Kitchen : I believe NASCAR made the right decision ending the race, even if it was too little, too late. Obviously, the driver out front at the time was Chase Elliott leaving fans angry and questioning the validity of the call. But to echo statements from my colleagues, if NASCAR concluded the race early, fans would still be upset, just for different reasons.

I will say this in defense of the 9 team: they played the game. They knew that weather was a factor all day and raced as hard as they could at the end. The team outsmarted the field with strategy and got really lucky. It was a strategy that other teams could have pulled off, but no one else did.

Speaking on NASCAR’s judgment, with an earlier decision to red flag the race, I believe the Truex and Custer incident could have been prevented. Many believe when that wreck occurred, the racing should have ended for the day. And that is where I differ.

If I am correct, I recall the rain settling a bit after NASCAR paused the action. All NASCAR had to do after the first collision (Harvick’s wreck) was delay the race a bit, dry the track, and try again. However, I know it is not that easy as visibility was a constant safety concern. With the rain continuing at various degrees of intensity, water from the track would still come off the tires and coat the windshield.

At the end of the day, NASCAR used what they learned earlier to assess the risk versus the reward of continuing the race (even if they were slow to do so). At the same time they drastically failed to balance entertainment and safety. 

Though this is a situation of “what if’s” and “if only’s”, one thing is for certain. Clearly, NASCAR has a lot of learning to do and a lot of work ahead. They quickly learned where the line should be drawn and that they should not cross it again. 

All things considered, two laps around a slick and fast Charlotte Motor Speedway proves exciting. Next, we rewind back to last Sunday’s EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at COTA with our race and points reports!
Those choosing Chase Elliott for COTA say "I!"

Those choosing Chase Elliott for COTA say “I!”

In the meantime, Kobe Lambeth's lead shrinks considerably.

In the meantime, Kobe Lambeth’s lead shrinks considerably.

Here, Ashley Hobbs considers the numbers worth considering for Sunday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte!
First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Since 2004, the Coca-Cola 600 winner has an average starting spot of 9.2, led an average of 120.9 laps, started within the top five 47.06% of the time and started within the top 10 64.71% of the time.

Since 2004, the Coca-Cola 600 winner has an average starting spot of 9.2, led an average of 120.9 laps, started within the top five 47.06% of the time and started within the top 10 64.71% of the time.

In this case, Joey Logano seems steady and solid in the Coca-Cola 600.

In this case, Joey Logano seems steady and solid in the Coca-Cola 600.

Next, here's the trends in the past 10 editions of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Next, here’s the trends in the past 10 editions of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Now, consider the trends in the past five Coca-Cola 600 races at Charlotte.

Now, consider the trends in the past five Coca-Cola 600 races at Charlotte.

And the machine took that personally.

And the machine took that personally.

Now, let’s go for “A Lap Around Charlotte” with Michael Guariglia, a veteran eNASCAR racer and our Staff Photographer!
Michael Guariglia shares the keys to a good lap in the Coca-Cola 600.

Michael Guariglia shares the keys to a good lap in the Coca-Cola 600.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is your typical 1.5 mile oval on the NASCAR calendar. It has a double dog-legged frontstretch, high banked corners, and a lot of room to move around.

Despite that, the track has lots of character with bumps on the bottom and top of the track. This makes it difficult to setup the car for a race around “America’s Home for Racing.” Being able to get through the bumps is paramount for success for Sunday’s Coca Cola 600, the longest race of the year.

For the general setup, most cars will set up with higher than normal ride heights, due to the little practice and uncertainty of what the car will react like. Crew chiefs will utilize spring rubbers and shims to adjust the front ride heights throughout the race for the front shocks to adjust front ride heights. Look for a lot of teams to steer away from a “trimmed out,” low downforce style setup due to the length of time in the corners. Now that the setup is adjusted and fit for us to turn some laps, let’s set some flyers.

Coming down the frontstretch, the car should be positioned nicely in the middle of the track to maximize momentum, putting as little tension as possible on the steering wheel. To get everything out of the car on the doglegs, it is crucial to turn in a little earlier than normal, to make sure the car stays around the center of the track before heading to turn one.

On approach to turn one, get the car close to the wall to allow for a clean entry. Turn one and two are interesting in that there are two distinct grooves. If we want to run the bottom, like on restarts to take the shortest path possible, there will be a drop off into the corner as the transition from straightaway to corner happens.

The key for the bottom is get the left-side tires hooked on the white and blue line to allow the car to turn better and avoid the bumps. If you hit the bumps, the car will drift out into the second lane, falling out like a skater does a half pipe.

If we prefer the outside line, we want to look for the first seam that separates the bottom and middle groove. Similar to the bottom, we want to hook the seam to give us grip and drive off the corner. Don’t be surprised if there are a few cars up at the wall trying to fight handling, but don’t expect that lane to come in except for the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors races.

Now that we got through turns one and two, the backstretch is the perfect place to set up passes before turn three. The run out of one and two will be crucial for lap time and setting passes up. As we scream by the gigantic screen, you will notice on the broadcast how much the car moves. The backstretch is also bumpy like the corners. So, it’ll be important to make sure the splitter isn’t skimming the ground, scrubbing precious speed.

To set up for turn three, there is a white line that crosses from the wall to the apron on entry. I use that as a braking marker. Braking is usually done a few hundred feet before the line. I try to get my left side tires to skim a white dot in the middle of the line. From there, it’s similar to one and two: choose the bottom or the middle.

However, the high line becomes an option on this end of the speedway because of the slower speeds compared to one and two. There is much more off-throttle time and handling will be the biggest factor on this end. The bottom is bumpier than turn one and two with the middle being the preferred line for a looser car.

The name of the game at Charlotte Motor Speedway is getting through the bumps and keeping up your momentum. If you can do that, survive the duration of the race and hold off your competition, you will find yourself in victory lane after a hard day’s work!

Lastly, let’s reveal our picks for Sunday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte!
Now, this might be a logical quintet for Sunday evening's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Now, this might be a logical quintet for Sunday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Torres : Kyle Larson and 1.5-mile tracks mesh so well. This time around, I should expect him to deliver a strong 600. It won’t be dominant. But he’ll be in the mix with several drivers. Just this time, he’ll pull the win off and continue his superb debut year with Hendrick Motorsports.

Tiongson : As one of the top intermediate track racers this season, Kyle Larson, a racer thriving with long run speed, capitalizes with a Coca-Cola 600 win on Sunday night. All things considered, three consecutive runner up results  means Larson gets that much needed second victory.

Sisoler : With how chaotic the Coke 600 can be, to the point where I’m pretty much stumped this week, a lot of the time you want to be out ahead of the pack in case someone makes a mistake and minimizing the risk of you getting caught in someone else’s mess.

Only two drivers have clear track ahead of them at the start of the race that is NASCAR’s answer to endurance racing. While the nature of the race would suggest an upset winner like outside polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr., I don’t think that’s gonna happen (watch me be wrong). Even so, I’m going with the man on pole, Kyle Larson, to win his first Coke 600 trophy.

Hobbs : After riding high this season on intermediate tracks and claiming the pole, I think Kyle Larson will be the one to beat.

Shoppe : Kyle Larson has been strong on mile and a half tracks all year but finally seals the deal with his second win!

Lucas : The pick’em gods have not been too kind to me as of late. But I hope to end my drought by sticking to my preview answers. I think the veteran can maintain his night setup balance by getting all the clean air he can. Martin Truex Jr. will triumph and claim another 600 trophy for the collection!

Raynor : Martin Truex Jr. has been good there and I feel has momentum right now.

Lambeth : People kept asking when the reigning champion would win a race this year, given his three teammates already had victories. Last week at COTA, Chase Elliott became the fourth and final driver at Hendrick Motorsports to score a win. The No. 9 team will use it as momentum to get the one that got away last year and take home the crown jewel, Coca-Cola 600!

Kitchen : With four top 10 finishes in the last five races, Chase Elliott has what it takes to win the Coca-Cola 600. He won at this track last year. And he has great momentum going into this weekend coming off his COTA win.

Hendrick Motorsports is in a great spot. So if Elliott does not close out this race, I almost guarantee one of his teammates will.

Jones : Brad Keselowski is itching to get back to victory lane. He’s had a string of bad luck and lackluster finishes. What better weekend than this one to turn that around?

TPF Stats : It’s a race he has not won at but runs well at. It’s Denny Hamlin Time!

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into this race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine! Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, be sure to use coupon code TPF2021 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you!

Rob Tiongson is a 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 his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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