Coca-Cola 600 Preview

There's a bit of a different handicapping procedure this week for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Usually, the first item on the agenda to break down is reviewing what happened the week before in the All-Star Race, also held at Charlotte. It's the freshest and newest notes applicable on the exact, identical track with temperatures that figure to be similar. This season is different.

“The All-Star Race was fun, but this weekend is a different package, so that race didn’t do much to help us prepare for this weekend," said Jimmie Johnson who has eight Charlotte wins. "The 600 is a long race, it’s a test of endurance and patience, and you have to accommodate for track conditions changing from the day to the night.”

Last week we had somewhat of a preview into what the future of the NASCAR Cup Series might have in store for us with races on the 1.5-mile tracks Kevin Harvick has dominated this season. NASCAR wouldn't have used the restrictor-plate and new aero-package in last week's All-Star Race if they didn't have plans for it somewhere in the future. Because the All-Star Race offered no points, it was a perfect place to check out how the racing would be.

And before we get into Sunday's race, let's talk about Saturday race a bit. I'm not sure if I liked it or not. I liked how drivers eventually learned how to manipulate the side drafts with their cars and get huge runs off the top line into the turns. I liked how they were able to mash the pedals all the way around the track with minimal breaking. But I didn't like the speeds so slow in the 170 mph range. There was no giddy-up on the restarts, and most of all I didn't like the final results. No matter how many restrictions placed on the cars, Harvick still managed to win. The next test race to slow Harvick should be tying one hand behind his back. Yep, that should work.

This week in NASCAR's longest race of the year we go back to the regular rules-package that Harvick has been dominating with. He's won five of the 12 races this season and three of four on 1.5-mile tracks. Kyle Busch has three wins this season, including the one race on a 1.5-mile track (Texas) Harvick didn't win. Harvick finished second in that race.

Busch is still a notch below Harvick on these tracks and the next wave of top competitors are two notches below Harvick. Among those drivers are last years Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Team Penske with Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney are all right there. So are Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, and Erik Jones.

So just where is the huge Harvick edge coming from?

“I would just point at the experience of the race team because of the fact this is our fifth year together," Harvick said. "We’ve been through a lot of very high-pressure situations, low-pressure situations, good moments, bad moments. And everybody just gets along so well on our race team and, when you look at that as a group, it’s something that’s pretty special. I think the second thing is the fact that Ford has brought a lot to the table for our race team. It’s allowed us to expand our engineering staff over the first winter and really just brought resources to our team. So, when you add all those pieces to the puzzle up and look at the experience of the race team and you look at the partnerships we have with Ford and Mobil 1 and all the support we have from our ownership group to let us go out and explore and do the things and take the chance of switching to a different manufacturer and take the chance of bringing things into our own house and controlling more of our own parts and pieces, those things all added up.”

That's a nice answer, but I think their huge edge comes from Stewart Haas money and a set-up secret they're keeping to themselves. I wouldn't share, either. This week he's using a chassis that has won its past two starts, both which came on 1.5-mile tracks. It won last fall at Texas and in February at Atlanta. So he's got that going for him as well.

I do believe there is some hope this week for a new face winning despite Harvick dominating on these type of tracks. The big difference for Harvick this week from the other races so far on 1.5s is the changing conditions of the track and the distance. Harvick's wins at Las Vegas and Kansas were 400 miles and the extra 200 miles this week mean about four additional pit stops where things are out of Harvick's control and in the hands of five guys attempting to change four tires and get two cans of fuel in the tank in less than 16 seconds. Harvick's actually been the problem himself a few times by speeding on pit road. More pit stops equals more possible problems for the favorite.

The other major dilemma the Coca-Cola 600 presents for every crew chief is getting the proper changes made during the pits stops as the conditions change. If you don't adapt to the changing temperatures, you don't win. The race starts in the sunlight (6:15 p.m. ET), goes to twilight and then dusk. This is another area Harvick could have issues with. He could also have an engine failure, be involved in a wreck, blow a tire or have someone give him a glimpse of kryptonite.

Yes, I'm starting to believe he is Superman. And this is how great he is that I have to find little tiny ways that could derail him for a race on a 1.5-mile track. In this instance, the main things are the distance mixed in with the changing conditions. There's also less practice.

“It definitely throws a kink into things because you wind up with fewer practice laps," said Harvick. "This comes from the engine department, because this year you have to run your engines twice and you have to take care of them as much as you can. There’s also been a much bigger interest in where you shift and the temperatures during practice. So from that standpoint, that’s where you see the extra 100 miles in the race that makes a difference. It’s always an interesting weekend to be able to practice enough to still run the same tolerances with engines being pushed for 600 miles instead of 500, and you get there by taking that time out of practice.”

Harvick has 34 starts at Charlotte in points-paying races and has three wins, the last coming in the fall of 2014. His other two wins came in the Coca-Cola 600 in 2011 and 2013 while driving for Richard Childress. He was the type of non-favorite winner in those races that got faster late in the race where the extra miles was used to his benefit.

Last season it was Austin Dillon winning the Coca-Cola 600 and paid out at 100-to-1 odds for the first win of his career. He led two laps and won on fuel mileage. The year before it was Truex winning at Charlotte like no one else had ever seen leading 392 of 400 laps.

“That was a special night and will always remain a career highlight,” Truex said. “We had a great car and it was just our night. We didn’t make any mistakes and took advantage of a very fast Toyota Camry.”

Truex has a 4.4 average finish over his last six starts at Charlotte (two wins), but can't get to Harvick's level on 1.5s yet after winning seven of 11 on them last season. His lone win this season was at Fontana's 2-mile layout, a downforce track like the 1.5s, but was aided because Harvick got himself into trouble early in that race.

Kyle Busch won the All-Star Race last season, but in 28 points-paying races there he's still winless at Charlotte. He was runner-up in last season's Coca-Cola 600.

“Winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which has been one of my favorite tracks, was really special in last year’s All-Star Race since I’ve tried for a long time," said Busch who is 9-to-2 to win. "Now that we’ve done that in the All-Star Race, I’m hoping it carries over to the 600 and I can bring home my first Cup points race there. It’s certainly high on my list of what I want to accomplish in this sport. There’s no doubt winning the Coke 600 would be big.”

I like Busch to have a great day and turn things up a notch in the final 100 laps, but among all the drivers that have consistently stayed close behind Harvick on these type of tracks this season, I came up with Kyle Larson. He's never won on a 1.5-mile track before -- four wins on 2-mile tracks, but I liked what I saw out of him at Kansas where he led a race-high 101 laps and finished fourth. The set-up notes are still relatively fresh. He finished third at Las Vegas, behind Harvick and Busch. He has the only new Camaro showing any speed this season. I'm looking for his crew to make the winning adjustments down the stretch.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #43 Kyle Larson (8/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (9/2)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (2/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (20/1)