NASCAR Charlotte 2013: Coca-Cola 600 viewer's guide

Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE

One of NASCAR’s biggest races, the Coca-Cola 600, takes the green flag tonight at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Coca-Cola 600 is one of the four biggest races in NASCAR. As you watch tonight's race, here is a guide for the drivers, storylines and everything else you need to know to follow along with at home.

Storylines

From The Light Into The Night

Because this race starts when the sun is out and ends roughly five hours later under the darkness of the night, the Coca-Cola 600 is almost two different races combined. As the sun sets a transformation will commence as the track temperature decreases and rubber collects on the surface. This will make it a challenge for crew chiefs to keep up with the ever-changing track conditions.

It's common to see drivers who were strong early on slide towards the back as the laps click by, and at the same time, drivers who were struggling in the daylight get stronger once the sun sets -- rarely do a driver and team dominate from start to finish.

First-Time Winners

You would think a race which requires patience due to its grueling nature would play into the hands of drivers with more experience. However, recent history shows that the 600 is a great opportunity for young drivers to score their maiden Sprint Cup victory, as five drivers in tonight's field have done just that -- Jeff Gordon (1994), Bobby Labonte (1995), Matt Kenseth (2000) Casey Mears (2007) and David Reutimann (2009).

If the 600 is to see another first-winner, keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who starts 17th and is driving the No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports.

In his third full season in Cup, the 29-year-old is quietly sitting ninth in points and has been at his best on intermediate tracks since being united with crew chief Todd Parrott last fall. This season at Texas and Kansas, two speedways which are the same length and share similar characteristics with Charlotte, Almirola finished in the top 10, which gives credence to him being strong this evening.

Test of Endurance

There was a time when the longest race in NASCAR pushed both man and machine to their breaking points. But with mechanical failures not nearly as frequent as in years past, the Coca-Cola 600 no longer tests machine as much as it does drivers.

The driver who will be challenged most will be pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, with Charlotte just his third full race since breaking his back. Two-weeks ago at Darlington, as demanding a track as there is in NASCAR, he gutted out an impressive runner-up finish, but said his back hurt for days afterward.

Track Position is Everything

As was evident in last week's All-Star Race, track position and who can get out front and into clean air could be the prevailing factors on who wins the 600. And just as Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star Race because of a fast pit stop and Kurt Busch lost it because of a slow stop, pit road will play a pivotal role in determining who is in contention late.

If there is a lack of tire throughout the night, expect crew chiefs to gamble and take just two tires in an effort to jump up the leader board. And as the race winds down don't be surprised to see some drivers skip pit road all together.

Worth Noting
  • If Johnson wins it will mark the eighth time a driver has been able to pull off the All-Star Race/Coca-Cola 600 sweep. Those who have done so previously include: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Jeff Gordon (1997), Johnson (2003), Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).
  • Charlotte represents the 1,400th Cup start for the famed Wood Brothers team, who began fielding cars in 1953.
  • Danica Patrick and Trevor Bayne both made engine changes in practice and will have to move to the back of the starting grid.
Favorites

1. Kasey Kahne

The defending winner of the 600 has won this race a total of three times and has four victories overall at Charlotte. Kahne is quick again this year having posted the single fastest lap in final practice along with the fastest 10-lap consecutive average.

2. Kyle Busch

Charlotte may be one of just six tracks Busch has never won at before, but he has come close on numerous occasions. In his last 11 races on the 1.5-oval he has finished outside the top 10 just once, including six finishes of third or better. And fast again this weekend, that inaugural Charlotte win could easily come tonight.

3. Kurt Busch

The question isn't whether Busch has a fast race car -- he does -- it's whether he can put together a complete race where that speed is there at the end of 600 miles. That was the issue that hampered him in the All-Star Race, where a slow final pit stop dropped him in the running order, never to recover.

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