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NASCAR: 600 miles to glory

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It’s time for the race fan’s annual dream weekend, folks, the time when NASCAR fans pay attention to the Indy Car series and vice versa. This Sunday, the crown jewel of open-wheel racing, the Indy 500, takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and in the evening, the Sprint Cup series takes the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the longest, most grueling race of the season.

Previously on NASCAR 2013

Two weeks ago in Darlington, Kyle Busch developed a slow leak in a rear tire on the final run of the race, a race he dominated for most of the night, and dropped back when it counted, allowing Matt Kenseth to sneak by and grab his third victory of the season, the most of any driver in the series in 2013. Busch, not surprisingly, refused to talk to the media.

Last week, points leader Jimmie Johnson made up for a qualifying mistake that had him starting at the rear of the field, and won the All-Star Race for the second time in as many years. Johnson has now won the event four times in his career, more than any other driver, and is continuing to elicit discussion about why so many people don’t like him. It’s simple: He wins a lot. The same thing happened to Jeff Gordon during his prime, and now that his dominance has fallen off, he has more fans than ever. If you haven’t been with Jimmie from the beginning, you probably don’t like him.

This Week

As tough as it is to race at Darlington, this week’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the greatest test of endurance drivers will face all season. The event, one of the most historic in the sport, is a 600-mile, 400-lap gauntlet at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway. Drivers will lose 10-15 pounds of water weight throughout the race while sustained high temperatures inside the car approach 130 degrees.  It’s the one race, more than any other, that should be used when the “Are NASCAR drivers athletes?” discussions arise. The sport is already a test of physical and mental focus, but the Coke 600 is the most extreme example.

Last year

In 2012, Kasey Kahne outlasted the competition to take the victory.

Storylines

  • The Coke 600 is a true test of mettle for engine builders. Building an engine that can sustain insanely high RPMs is hard enough for a 500-mile race, but add another 100, and tack on the fact that the engines need to survive an event that is practically half and half in terms of being contested in bright, scorching sunlight, and cool, nighttime temperatures, and you’ve got a recipe for danger. We will see engine failures this weekend, a fact that should have the Toyota drivers shaking, due to their history of engine problems.
  • It’s easy to give up if you have an early problem that relegates you to the back of the field. But more so than any other race, there’s plenty of time to make up ground in the 600. Rarely 1 does a race go perfectly, and any driver that wants a chance to win will have to overcome some kind of adversity to get to Victory Lane.
  • He did fine at Darlington, but shots of Denny Hamlin after the race made it clear he’s still feeling the aches and pains in his healing back. Over four hours at 190+ mph speeds in a hot race car won’t make it feel any better, so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain focus throughout the event.

Who To Watch

  • Kurt Busch has shown speed in every race this season, but has yet to really close out an event, be it because of mechanical problems, pit road miscues, or otherwise. If the team can put together a strong car and not make any mistakes, he’ll be at the front when it counts.
  • Martin Truex Jr. continues to run well at 1.5-mile tracks, but just hasn’t put the whole thing together yet. He got close at Texas, and he should run well this weekend at the similar layout in Charlotte.
  • Jamie McMurray won the qualifying Sprint Showdown race last week at the All-Star event, and he’s been the better of the two Earnhardt Ganassi Racing cars this season. McMurray likes Charlotte, and he’s good there, so he’ll look to get back to Victory Lane for the first time in a while.

Who Will Win

He won the All-Star Race. He leads the points. He’s terrifyingly good at Charlotte. Jimmie Johnson will win this race, and he’ll do it handily.

How I’ve Done

I still haven’t picked a race correctly yet. But, my fictional driver sits 6th in the standings.

Current Record: 0-11

Daytona 500

My pick: Jeff Gordon (finished 20th)

Winner: Jimmie Johnson

Subway Fresh Fit 500 (Phoenix)

My pick: Jimmie Johnson (finished 2nd)

Winner: Carl Edwards

Kobalt Tools 400 (Las Vegas)

My pick: Marcos Ambrose (finished 22nd)

Winner: Matt Kenseth

Food City 500 (Bristol)

My pick: Kyle Busch (finished 2nd)

Winner: Kasey Kahne

Auto Club 400 (Fontana)

My pick: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 2nd)

Winner: Kyle Busch

STP Gas Booster 500 (Martinsville)

My pick: Jeff Gordon (finished 3rd)

Winner: Jimmie Johnson

NRA 500 (Texas)

My pick: Brad Keselowski (finished 9th)

Winner: Kyle Busch

STP 400 (Kansas)

My pick: Kyle Busch (finished 38th)

Winner: Matt Kenseth

Toyota Owners 400 (Richmond)

My pick: Clint Bowyer (finished 2nd)

Winner: Kevin Harvick

Aaron’s 499 (Talladega)

My pick: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 17th)

Winner: David Ragan

Bojangles Southern 500 (Darlington)

My pick: Jimmie Johnson (finished 4th)

Winner: Matt Kenseth

 

2013 Sprint Cup Standings (after 11 of 36 races)

1. Jimmie Johnson

2. Carl Edwards -44

3. Matt Kenseth -59

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -64

5. Clint Bowyer -74

6. Kasey Kahne -97

7. Brad Keselowski -97

8. Kyle Busch -98

9. Aric Almirola -106

10. Kevin Harvick -108

Notes:

  1. Unless you’re Jimmie Johnson.

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