NASCAR's consolidated schedule continues this weekend, and after back-to-back races at Darlington, the Cup Series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway for one of the biggest events in the sport, the Coca-Cola 600. The marathon-style race is the longest on the schedule, and it poses a number unique challenge for the drivers, pit crews, crew chiefs and the cars themselves.
Thanks to the disruption in the schedule, Sunday's race will be just the second at a mile-and-a-half oval. The first came at Las Vegas back in February, and while we can certainly use that race as a predictor for Charlotte, you need to look at more than just the finishing order. A caution during a round of green flag stops jumbled things up a bit, and a late caution brought pit strategy into play for a five-lap shootout to the checkered flag.
With special regulations still in place for COVID-19, practice is still off the table, but the plan is for qualifying to be held to set the field. An actual qualifying sessions could create some unexpected opportunities for place differential points for DFS contests and for Slingshot Fantasy Auto, but in terms of who will be fast when the green flag waves, we really only have past results at Charlotte and what we have seen this year as our guide.
Even though June is fast approaching, the season is still relatively young in terms of the numbers of races. There is still time to work in sleeper plays, and I'm just not too concerned about burning through starts from any particular driver. I'm expecting to use many of the usual suspects for Fantasy Live and the Driver Group Game. Ideally, practice sessions will eventually return, and our sample size of on-track data will only grow in the meantime.
1. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has been fast all year, and he has eight Top 10s in 10 starts at Charlotte with Stewart-Haas, including five finishes of third or better. He has also led double-digit laps in four of the last five races here, and Harvick led the most laps in the only race of 2020 at a mile-and-a-half track.
2. Chase Elliott
He's had one of the fastest cars week in and week out in 2020, and Elliott led 43 laps and finished fourth at Charlotte last year. Not to mention that the first time the series visited a 1.5-mile oval this season, he led 70 laps, swept both stages and was in the mix for the win until suffering a tire issue. Elliott should be a force in all fantasy formats.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex has been in a league of his own at Charlotte recently. He is the defending winner of the Coca-Cola 600, and he has six Top 3 finishes, including three wins, in has last seven starts here. Truex has led more than 90 laps four times in that stretch, leading 116 laps in his victory last year.
4. Kyle Busch
It has been and up-and-down start to the year for Busch, but he has been locked in at Charlotte recently. He has three Top 3 finishes in his last four starts here, leading 79 laps and finishing third last season and leading 377 of the 400 laps in a win in 2018. Busch still offers as much upside as any driver in the field.
5. Brad Keselowski
He has shown a lot of upside at the mile-and-a-half ovals with the rules package introduced last year, and Keselowski led 76 laps in the 2019 Coca-Cola 600. He picked up a Top 10 at Las Vegas back in February, and at worst, he should be able to deliver a similar finish Sunday.
6. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin had a mediocre run at Las Vegas earlier this year, but he is coming off a win, and his Charlotte numbers have been impressive. He has cracked the Top 5 in five of his last seven starts here, leading laps in five straight races and topping 20 laps led three times. Hamlin could be a sneaky GPP option at the DFS sites this weekend.
7. Joey Logano
He's been hit and miss at Charlotte throughout his career, but he was the runner-up here last year in the first race with the reduced-horsepower package. Logano also one the first race of 2020 at a mile-and-a-half track, leading 54 laps in his victory at Las Vegas. He should be a Top 5 contender Sunday.
8. Alex Bowman
Bowman has been enjoying a breakout campaign, and another strong run should be on tap Sunday. He was excellent at the mile-and-a-half tracks throughout last season, and he finished seventh in the Coca-Cola 600. Bowman was also battling for the win in the closing laps at Las Vegas before a late caution and ensuing pit strategy cost him a chunk of spots.
9. Jimmie Johnson
He isn't the dominating force at Charlotte that he was in his prime, but Johnson has reeled off three straight Top 10s here. He has also enjoyed an uptick in speed this season, and he delivered a Top 5 run at Las Vegas. Johnson should be on your short list of Group B options for the Driver Group Game.
10. Ryan Blaney
While he has had his issues finishing off races in 2020, Blaney has shown some serious speed. In fact, he was out front at Las Vegas before a late caution jumbled up the running order and likely cost him a win. Blaney is more of a high-risk, high-reward fantasy play, but he could be a real X-factor for both season-long and DFS lineups.
11. Kurt Busch
Busch has quietly been piling up solid finishes at Charlotte for a while now, and he has seven finishes of 11th or better in his last nine starts here and five finishes of eighth or better in his last seven. He probably isn't going to provide many dominator points, but Busch should be in the mix for a Top 10 Sunday.
12. Erik Jones
He blew a tire and slammed the wall in las year's Coca-Cola 600, but overall, Jones has been a steady Top 10 performer at the mile-and-a-half tracks at the Cup level. I wouldn't call him a most-own driver in any format, but he is a safe bet for a quality finish.
13. William Byron
Many of Byron's finishes this year aren't great indicators of his raw speed, but his Top 10 upside has been obvious. He should have a high ceiling again this weekend at Charlotte, where he led 31 laps and finished ninth a year ago. If you like to be aggressive, Byron is worth a look as a Group B option in the DGG, and I really like his potential as a GPP option at the DFS sites.
14. Tyler Reddick
Reddick has hit the ground running as a rookie, already notching a couple of Top 10s and showing Top 5 potential on a couple of occasions. He finished 18th at Las Vegas, and I think a Top 20 is his floor Sunday. I love him as a Group C option for the DGG.
15. Matt DiBenedetto
His second-place finish at Las Vegas was aided by pit strategy on the final caution, but DiBenedetto was already looking at a Top 15, and he has been a steady presence in the Top 15 all year in the No. 21 Ford. He could be a sneaky fantasy play this weekend, especially at the DFS sites if he qualifies a little deeper in the field.
16. Aric Almirola
He has finished 13th and 11th in his two starts at Charlotte with Stewart-Haas Racing, and while his upside is always going to be limited, Almirola is good at finishing in and around the Top 15. He has some value as a dependable, fallback option in the DGG, but I think there are plenty of better Group B plays.
17. Matt Kenseth
His return performance last weekend at Darlington were proof that the veteran can still get it done, and Charlotte has traditionally been one of his best tracks. In fact, Kenseth has just one finish outside the Top 20 here since the start of 2009, and he has four finishes of 11th or better in his last five Charlotte starts. Don't hesitate to use him as a Group C play in the DGG.
18. Ryan Newman
In fitting Newman fashion, he has finished 16th or better in eight of his last 10 starts at Charlotte. He didn't get to race in the first race of the season at a 1.5-mile track, but he showed immediate Top 15 potential when he got behind the wheel a Darlington. He should finish in the top half of the field Sunday and could have some DFS value depending on where he starts.
19. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer has been known to come out of nowhere to deliver strong runs at 1.5-mile tracks, but I wouldn't expect to see that this weekend. Charlotte has never been his best track, and he has finished outside the Top 10 in each of his last 11 starts here, so I'd probably stay away from him in most formats.
20. Chris Buescher
He has been one of the best values for DFS contests at mile-and-a-half tracks recently, and Buescher gained 16 spots and finished sixth in last year's Coca-Cola 600. Earlier this year, he moved up nine spots and notched a 14th-place finish at Las Vegas. As long as he starts outside the Top 20, Buescher should be a solid play in any formats that prioritize place differential.
21. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
If you feel like rolling the dice on a high-risk sleeper, you may want to venture down the Stenhouse rabbit hole. He has six Top 15s in his last seven starts at Charlotte, including a 10th-place effort in 2018 and a fifth-place run last year. Stenhouse also finished third at Las Vegas in February, albeit with the help of a couple of timely cautions.
22. Austin Dillon
Dillon used pit strategy to finish fourth at Las Vegas early in the year, but don't get your hopes up. He has finished outside the Top 15 in four of his last five Charlotte starts, finishing outside the Top 30 three times. Dillon will need to start way in the back to get my attention this weekend.
23. Cole Custer
He will be making his first Cup start at Charlotte, but Custer has been able to finish in or around the middle of the pack most weeks, logging a 19th-place finish at Las Vegas. Another Top 20 is in play this weekend, making him a serviceable alternative to Tyler Reddick and Matt Kenseth in the DGG.
24. Christopher Bell
Bell finally showed some signs of life with an 11th-place effort at Darlington Wednesday night. Maybe it will get his rookie season on track, but I am still going to wait until he has a couple of solid runs before using him in the season-long leagues. I think better days are ahead.
25. Bubba Wallace
Wallace has been off to a surprisingly decent start, and while he can thank pit strategy for his sixth-place finish at Las Vegas, he's been running around the 20th spot just about every week. I still have my doubts that Wallace can maintain this level of performance, but I'll throw him in a lineup or two at the DFS sites if he starts deep enough.
26. Ty Dillon
He has never cracked the Top 20 in four starts at Charlotte, but Dillon has snuck into the Top 25 in the last three races at the track. He used pit strategy to grab a solid finish at Las Vegas, but a mid-pack finish is probably the best-case scenario. He will need to start deep in the field to have any fantasy appeal.
27. John Hunter Nemechek
The rookie flashed some surprising upside at Darlington last weekend, but while I am not expecting consistent Top 10 runs out of Nemechek, he has been a staple of the Top 25. He finished 24th at Las Vegas earlier this year, and if he qualifies around the 30th spot, I'll be all over him as a source of cap relief.
28. Ryan Preece
The 1.5-mile tracks have not been kind to Preece since entering the Cup Series, and he finished 31st in his Charlotte debut last year. An engine issue ruined his afternoon at Las Vegas earlier this year, but he didn't show more than mid-pack speed prior to the issue. Throw in his horrible luck this year, and Preece is a DFS lottery ticket, at best.
29. Michael McDowell
We've seen McDowell crack the Top 25 on a routine basis so far this year, and he has had decent results at Charlotte in the past. He has four finishes of 22nd or better in his last five starts here, including three finishes of 18th or better. If McDowell happens to start around the 30th spot, he will have some potential as a punt play for DFS contests.
30. Corey LaJoie
He more than held his own at Las Vegas back in February when he gained 14 spots and finished 16th. LaJoie also had a great run in last year's Coca-Cola 600, avoiding trouble and coming home 12th. He will need a lot of things to break in his favor if he is going to challenge for a Top 15 Sunday, but if he happens to qualify outside the Top 30, throw a dart his way.