After the excitement (and confusing format) of the All-Star Race, the Sprint Cup pack gets back to serious points-paying action this weekend under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Sunday will be a great day for racing with the Indy 500 first in the afternoon followed by the Coca-Cola 600. The 600-mile, 400-lap race in Charlotte is NASCAR's longest race and might just spring a surprise: Witness Casey Mears' sole Cup victory in the 2007. Chances are, though, the usual suspects will rise to the top.
Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR's crown jewels with some 102 Cup races already run at the 1.5 mile quad oval. It was the first track to hold a night race in NASCAR's modern era (1992) and the first venue to install condos back (1984) with 52 apartments sitting above turn one. More importantly, it's a track that hosts a Chase race and as much as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin et al will want to win on Sunday night, lessons learned for the fall race might just prove to be more useful to Championship aspirations.
Speaking of drivers with a penchant for the Chase, let's start with the Champ as we assess which drivers to back as we reach the midway point to the 2010 Chase cut off.
By the four-time champ's phenomenally high standards, it's been a slow couple of months, but don't be surprised to see Double J storm back to Victory Lane at a track he knows and loves this Sunday night. In total, Johnson has six wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- tied with with Martinsville for most wins at one venue -- and 13 top-10 finishes in 17 attempts. He won the Chase race here in 2009 and has an average finish of 8.6. To paraphrase the old Mark Twain quote -- reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated: Back Jimmie all the way to the fantasy bank this weekend.
By the Numbers: Johnson has led laps in an astonishing 16 of his 17 attempts at Charlotte.
Still striving for his first win since April 2009 (Texas) Gordon returns to a track where he's won five times with 16 top-five finishes. With nearly 600 races under his belt, the long format suits a driver like Gordon, who understands the need for patience in an endurance event like the Coca-Cola 600. He might not grab the win he desperately craves but expect Gordon to run with the leaders for most -- if not all -- of the evening.
By the Numbers: Gordon has run 11,115 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 34 previous attempts.
Statistically speaking, Hamlin's record at Charlotte Motor Speedway isn't much to get excited about with just three top 10 finishes in nine attempts. But 54 laps in first place during last year's Chase race (before an engine expired) and a strong All-Star performance last weekend suggest that Hamlin might just be a canny pick this weekend. Despite all the predictions to the contrary (myself included) Hamlin has not let his surgically repaired knee become a factor, winning three of the last seven races. He could make that four in eight this Sunday.
By the Numbers: Hamlin has 84 top tens in 163 total races -- or a top 10 every other race if you prefer.
It's admittedly a very small sample size for Logano at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but in the two Cup races the youngster has swept the top 10. He posted a ninth place finish at last year's Coca-Cola 600 and a fifth place run in the Chase race. Logano turned 20 this week and what better way to celebrate the end of his teenage years than a victory in the sports longest race.
By the Numbers: Charlotte is Logano's best track, by the numbers, with an average finish of 7.0.
Winner of this event in 2009, albeit in a rain shortened affair, Reutimann started out the season in sluggish fashion but has run better of late. He finished eleventh at Darlington and a morale-boosting fifth at Dover last weekend, giving his a timely fillip headed into the 600 this weekend. A second straight victory in NASCAR's longest race does indeed seem a little on the unlikely side, but don't rule out the amiable wheelman of the Aaron's Dream Machine; don't hesitate to activate him either.
By the Numbers: Reutimann led just five laps in this event last year but it was enough to record his -- and Michael Waltrip Racing's -- first ever victory.
The poster child for the phrase "what a difference a year makes", McMurray has had a great start to his second stint under the aegis of Chip Ganassi. Winner of the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500, McMurray will attempt to win the longest race of them all at a venue where he scored his maiden Cup victory in just his second ever race.
By the Numbers: McMurray has six top tens in 15 starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson. Only six times has the All-Star race winner gone on to do the double winning the 600 as well (DW in 1985, Davey Allison in 1991, Dale Earnhardt in 1993, Jeff Gordon in 1997, Jimmie himself in 2003 and Kasey Kahne in 2008.) Don't expect Kurt Busch to become number seven, then, as I'm backing Double J all the way to his fourth victory in 2010.
Up Next: It's the first trip of the year to the 2.5 mile triangular Pocono Raceway.