An 11-day stretch of seven NASCAR races will come to a close at Charlotte Motor Speedway after three races at Darlington Raceway marked the end of a 10-week break for the motorsport. Charlotte will be host to four races, beginning with Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and concluding with Wednesday night’s Alsco Uniforms 500.
This first stretch is only just the beginning for NASCAR’s return, with another 13 races already announced for between May 30 and June 21, but it has been a relief for everyone and some semblance of normalcy in a world that has been far from it over the last two months.
What remains normal is the hero/villain dynamic that can always make for a good story. The Toyota 500k saw the fans’ villain, no. 18 Kyle Busch, get into it with their hero, no. 9 Chase Elliott, in a game of inches misjudged that set off a wreck and caution that ended the race at 208 of 228 scheduled laps.
Heading into the Coca-Cola 600, Elliott starts third in the 600 while Busch starts 11th and Toyota 500k winner no. 11 Denny Hamlin starts 13th.
Hamlin won his second Cup race of the season, again in unusual circumstances with the Toyota 500k being a rain-shortened race and his Daytona 500 win being overshadowed by no. 6 Ryan Newman’s horrific last-lap crash. Hamlin’s wins in 2020 have come at two of NASCAR’s crown jewel tracks. This week, Hamlin has the chance to add as many as two wins at another crown jewel track, which could include a win in a crown jewel event, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.
Hamlin’s resume boasts wins in not only the Daytona 500, but also in the Southern 500, and the All-Star Race at Charlotte when he won in 2015. However, he has only come as close to a point-paying Cup win at Charlotte as a pair of runner-up finishes in the two Cup points races in 2012. Given Hamlin’s track record this season, he has a strong chance to become the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1997 to win both the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same season.
In 1997, Gordon won the Cup championship and if Hamlin wants to have a chance at the Bill France Trophy, he will have to go through no. 4 Kevin Harvick, as evidenced by May 17’s The Real Heroes 400. Harvick led 159 of 293 laps en route to his win and expanded his points lead to 28, which was expanded even further, to 34, after Wednesday’s Toyota 500k.
Harvick starts 22nd, one of his worst starts of the season, but the capabilities of him and Rodney Childers have shown that the team is capable of working through the field as the race progresses. Harvick won his first 600 in 2011 and earned his second in 2013. A third would solidify him, alone, as 12th on the all-time Cup wins list.
Just ahead of Harvick on the all-time wins list is no. 48 Jimmie Johnson, who will race on the 1.5 mile oval for the last time in his career. Last week, it appeared that Johnson was on his way to a stage win in The Real Heroes 400, and contending for a race win. However, that all came to an end on the last lap of stage one when he made contact with lap car, no. 17 Chris Buescher, which caused him to hit the wall and fall out of the race, putting him in second-to-last in the Cup Series’ return race.
Johnson finished 8th in the Toyota 500k and he appears to be rolling off of that momentum with a second-place starting spot in the Coca-Cola 600. If he were to win, it would be a fifth 600 win for the seven-time Cup champion and the 84th of his illustrious career. Most importantly, it would end a 102-race winless streak and lock him into the Playoffs to set him up for a run at the championship in his swansong season.
Johnson starts the Coca-Cola 600 alongside 2004 Cup champion no. 1 Kurt Busch who is looking for his first win of the year and to make 2020 the 17th season where Busch has won a Cup race.
Busch’s teammate, no. 42 Matt Kenseth, will be looking to set off a championship run with a win in a race that marked his first triumph in 2000, when Kenseth drove his no. 17 DeWalt Ford to lead 32 laps in winning the Coca-Cola 600 for his first win. Kenseth started 21st in the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 but will start 4th in this year’s 600 and currently sits 33rd in points, 18 points behind 30th, the cutoff line to be eligible for a Chase berth with a win.
Another veteran looking for a win to change the complexion of their season is no. 6 Ryan Newman who currently sits 28th in points, 46 behind 16th place no. 24 William Byron and 32 ahead of 31st place no. 15 Brennan Poole. Unlike the points situation, Newman will have a steeper hill to climb than Kenseth in winning at Charlotte this week, having never won at Charlotte before and being on a three-year-plus winless streak. However, if there is anyone who can pull off the unlikely, it is Newman whose return has amazed everyone already.
Kenseth posted a 10th-place finish in The Real Heroes 400 and a 30th-place finish in the Toyota 500k. Newman posted a 15th-place finish in the 400, after running top 10 for many laps and even spinning, and a 14th-place finish in the 500k, after leading five laps.
Coverage of the Coca-Cola 600 begins 6pm EST (TV: FOX, Radio: PRN) while coverage of the Alsco Uniforms 500 begins 7pm EST (TV: FS1, Radio: PRN).
13. Kyle Busch (157 points, +32 over 17th place Tyler Reddick; starts 11th)
14. Kurt Busch (151 points, +26; starts first)
15. Erik Jones (146 points, +21; starts 14th)
16. William Byron (129 points, +4; starts 10th)
17. Tyler Reddick (125 points, -4 behind 16th place William Byron; starts fifth)
18. Bubba Wallace (124 points, -5; starts 23rd)
19. Chris Buescher (121 points, -8; starts 19th)
Rookie of the Year battle:
No. 8 Tyler Reddick (125 points)
No. 41 Cole Custer (-31)
No. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (-32)
No. 95 Christopher Bell (-60)
No. 15 Brennan Poole (-74)
No. 00 Quin Houff (-102)
No. 53 Garrett Smithley (-114)