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Bank of America 500
Four drivers are now out and we've got 11 more to go until we crown the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR CUP Champion. So far you can use three fingers to count the legitimate contenders, but let's see how it plays out anyway.
 
The second stage of NASCAR's Playoffs begins Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first of three races in the Round of 12. This is perhaps the most interesting stage of the playoffs just because of the randomness of Talladega Superspeedway being involved next week where no driver is safe from being involved in a wreck.
 
However, sandwiched outside Talladega are two 1.5-mile tracks -- Sunday at Charlotte and October 22 at Kansas Speedway. We've seen seven races on 1.5-mile tracks already this season and Martin Truex Jr. has been dominant on all of them winning four of his fives races this season. That includes the past two races on 1.5-mile tracks at Chicagoland to kick off the Chase and at Kentucky on July 8. He also won at Las Vegas and Kansas and led the most laps in both.
 
He didn't win the May 28 race at Charlotte, but he did lead a race-high 233 laps before finishing third. Austin, who just got eliminated from the playoffs, won the Coca-Cola 600 on fuel strategy for his first career Cup win. Sunday's race is 100 miles shorter.
 
Last season it was Jimmie Johnson who won this race on his way to his seventh Cup championship. Last week at Dover, Jimmie Johnson had his first top-five in 16 races. Maybe Johnson has found some speed, or maybe he just loves Dover where he owns a track record 11 wins.
 
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“We were so fast off the truck last weekend in Dover and with a third-place finish, have some good momentum heading into Charlotte," Johnson said. "We’re still looking for that sweet spot and need to start leading some laps but I have a ton of faith in my Lowe’s team. They never quit.”
 
Johnson hasn't had a top-five on a 1.5-mile track since winning at Texas in April, but he certainly loves Charlotte and might be a decent look at odds of 15/1 or higher. He leads all active drivers with eight wins there and 1,930 laps led.
 
The driver that has caught fire lately and looks the only real challenger to Truex for the championship is Kyle Busch. He won the past two weeks at New Hampshire and Dover to give him four wins on the season. He didn't have any wins in the first 20 races and now has four in the past nine races. However, in 27 Cup starts at Charlotte he doesn't have any wins, but has led 971 laps and accumulated 11 top-fives. He was runner-up at Charlotte in May. Despite no wins, he still calls it his favorite track.
 
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“Charlotte is my favorite racetrack for a lot of reasons," Busch said. "Just growing up watching races on TV, I loved watching the All-Star Race under the lights and the 600 with all the sparks flying and all the guys going after hard-fought, hard-racing wins. The Xfinity Series has been good to me there. The Truck Series has been pretty good to me there, too. In Cup, I’ve had a lot of good finishes, but haven’t won one until the All-Star Race in May, but hoping that’s the beginning of good things for me there.”
 
Kyle Larson doesn't have a win on 1.5-mile tracks this season, but he's got a bunch of second-places finishes. Four times he's been runner-up in the seven races on 1.5s. In eight career starts at Charlotte he has a mediocre 19.8 average finish, but had a career-best fifth-place in this race last season.
 
Look for this to be a three-way battle between Truex, Busch and Larson. If I had to pick two drivers that would be contending with them for the win it would be Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
 
The driver I'll be rooting for the most as a fan is going to retire at the end of the season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is from North Carolina, but has never won a points-paying race on his home track -- he did win 2000 All-Star Race as a rookie.
 
“The challenge at Charlotte is not landing too tight in Turns 1 and 2 and being too tight in the center there," Earnhardt said. "Something that I think we all fight and we all have to work on there is trying to get your car to roll the middle of the corner, have that front grip and keep the car turning in the middle. You get into the corner so fast in Turn 1 and transitioning into that banking, the car really lands hard and gets tight, so trying to make that transition is a real challenge. Charlotte is our home track and I haven’t won a points race there yet, so that’s certainly something I would like to do. We have been seeing some improvements in our performance and our speed, so I’m looking forward to Charlotte.”
 
Earnhardt had a top-10 last week at Dover, the same race where his teammate Johnson found speed. The only top-five Junior has had on a 1.5-mile track this season was at Charlotte's sister-track in Texas, the race Johnson won. Maybe the teammates have something figured out. It'll be interesting to see how they run during Friday and Saturday's practices.  
 
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #78 Martin Truex Jr (9/2)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (7/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (10/1)
5) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1) 


  
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