SI.com's Mark Beech offers the most intriguing news, notes and analysis fans need to know heading into each week's race.
It would be hard to overstate how much Kasey Kahne's victory in last weekend's All-Star Race meant to both the driver and his team. Yes, the All-Star is little more than a glorified exhibition, and yes, Kahne, who got in through the vote of fans, wasn't there on his own merits. But it's been a long time since the No. 9 Dodge last pulled into Victory Lane. How long? Kahne's last win came at Homestead on Nov. 19, 2006 -- 52 races and a little more than 18 months ago. It's little wonder that the day before the All-Star Race, Kahne -- who remains one of the sport's most popular personalities -- said he didn't deserve to be in the field, or that he felt the need to say after winning, "I really can't believe it."
He can be forgiven for wondering if he might ever win again. Kahne has talked at length this week about the importance of momentum in Cup racing. It's something his team has been short on since the end of the 2006 season, when Kahne won a series-best six races. The introduction of the Car of Tomorrow last year threw off the entire operation at Evernham Motorsports, catching the team flat-footed and compromising its offseason testing program. Kahne and teammate Elliott Sadler were saddled with poorly handling cars (of both the old and new varieties) and struggled in many races just to stay on the lead lap.
The 2008 season began in promising fashion for Kahne, with four top 10 finishes in the first five races. As the series prepared to move to the intermediate tracks that are his strong suit, it appeared that he might finally be ready to break his run of winless starts. But alas, he proceeded to finish 17th or worse in five of his next six events. Momentum was gone and, until the All-Star Race, a measure of despair had returned.
Will he continue the turnaround this weekend? There's no question he's capable of winning at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- he swept the track's two races in 2006 -- but Kahne is far from a sure thing. For a team with handling problems, a race like the Coca-Cola 600 -- which begins during the heat of the day and ends after darkness falls -- is a potential nightmare. The track changes dramatically as it goes from hot to cool (see How To Drive, below), and 600 miles is a long way to keep such a fragile egg as the balance of the No. 9 Dodge from going completely out of whack. Add to that the fact the Toyotas seem to be operating with an advantage in horsepower, and I think the odds are decidedly stacked against Kahne.
Still, the 600 can be a fluky race. Witness last year's running, won on a gutsy fuel-mileage call by Casey Mears. If Kahne can merely manage to be running near the front at the end, he'll have as good a chance as he could hope. In a way, it's the story of his season.
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Tony Stewart talks about driving from day into night in the Coca-Cola 600: "Early in the 600 you're running in conditions you're not going to finish the race in, obviously. You start at what's typically a real hot part of the day and the track is slippery without a whole lot of grip. You're basically just trying to stay on the lead lap and, with each pit stop, you're adjusting your car to keep up with the changing track conditions. You're making sure you keep some adjustability built into your setup, so that when the sun goes down and the track really starts changing, you're able to adjust your car accordingly."
5: Wins at Lowe's Motor Speedway for Jimmie Johnson, who's made 13 starts at the track
120.2: Driver rating for Johnson at Lowe's, the highest of any active driver on the Cup circuit
6.8: Average finish for Johnson at Lowe's, the best of any active driver
June 19, 1960: Joe Lee Johnson takes just over five-and-a-half hours to win the very first World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (since renamed Lowe's Motor Speedway). It is the first NASCAR event ever held at CMS.