This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first race of the second round of the playoffs; the Bank of America 500. The remaining twelve playoff contenders will be hoping to get the round off to a good start to put them out of danger of elimination after Talladega and Kansas.
Charlotte Motor Speedway is a mile and a half long speedway in North Carolina and is considered the ‘home-racetrack’ of NASCAR. The track is banked at 24 degrees on each of its four corners, with a decrease to five degrees on the straights.
The circuit hosted its first NASCAR Cup Series race shortly after its opening in 1960. The first race was won by Jon Lee Johnson after 400 laps and 600 miles. Since then, Hendrick Motorsports has conquered at the track, having taken nineteen victories with drivers such as Ken Schrader, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson.
Like last weekend’s race at Dover, Johnson enters the event as the driver in the field with the most previous wins. The driver of the #48 Chevrolet has won eight times at Charlotte – four times in each event – and is also the defending race winner of the Bank of America 500 having won twelve months ago.
Last time out:
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last raced at Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this season on Memorial Day weekend for the Coca-Cola 600; the longest race of the NASCAR calendar. The race was comprised of four stages as opposed to the usual three thanks to the sheer duration of the event.
Kevin Harvick won the pole in qualifying, but it was Toyota that dominated the first stages of the race. Kyle Busch passed the pole-sitter en-route to taking the win in stage one, with Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin taking the honours in stages two and three.
In the final one hundred lap stage, the race turned into a fuel milage mission. Kyle Busch took the lead with ninety-four laps to go but pitted later on for fuel. Jimmie Johnson, searching for another Charlotte victory, took a gamble on making it to the end on fuel along with a handful of other drivers, but he ran out of gas with just two laps remaining.
This gave the lead to Austin Dillon; who managed to keep enough distance to Kyle Busch behind whilst also keeping enough gas in the tank to hold on to take his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win; a shock result that took all by surprise – including Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team.
Last week, Kyle Busch charged late in the race at Dover International Speedway to catch race-leader Chase Elliott with less than ten laps remaining. Lap traffic got the better of Elliott, who lost the lead to Busch as they started the final lap of the race. Busch would go on to win the race, his second win of the first three playoff races, with a disheartened Elliott advancing through to the next round, but still unconsolable having lost another shot at his first Cup Series win.
Dover was similarly unkind to the first four drivers that were eliminated from the playoffs. Thanks to their low scores in the first three races, Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch were eliminated from championship contention and will advance no further in the playoffs. This puts the playoff contender count down to twelve drivers.
Entering the round of twelve, Martin Truex Jr’s tally of playoff points has him eighteen points clear of Kyle Busch in second place and fifty-six points clear of twelfth placed Jamie McMurray; meaning that it’s going to take a dismal three races to see the Furniture Row Racing #78 driver eliminated.
The bottom four drivers in danger as the round begins are Ryan Blaney in ninth place, Chase Elliott in tenth, Matt Kenseth in eleventh and Jamie McMurray in twelfth. Five points separate the quartet, with only two points between Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse Jr, who holds the final safe spot of eighth place in the playoff standings.
Of course, with the field relatively close – except for the top two or three perhaps – a poor finish in this weekend’s race could really start the descent of the slippery slope to elimination in three races time; so every one of the twelve drivers will be striving to earn a solid foundation to their second round to avoid problems later on.
With Hendrick Motorsports looking to be on the up after a run of decent finishes for Chase Elliott and team-mate Jimmie Johnson; don’t be surprised if either manages to get to victory lane on Sunday. As mentioned earlier, Hendrick Motorsports are the winningest team at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so if they can find something that enables them to stay ahead of the Toyota drivers, they could be in with a shot.
Speaking of the Toyota drivers, once again you can’t discount Martin Truex Jr and Kyle Busch. Charlotte Motor Speedway is the sight of Truex Jr’s utter annihilation of the field in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600. Truex led a scarcely believable 392 laps out of the 400 lap distance and was never even threatened by a rival car. So it’s safe to say that the #78 Furniture Row Racing team know how to win in North Carolina.
As for Kyle Busch, Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the rare locations that he hasn’t been to victory lane at; but that doesn’t rule him out of being a threat. Kyle and the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing team arguably have the best momentum of anybody going into the round of twelve having won the last two races in a row. Whilst he hasn’t won at Charlotte, he’s shown speed on numerous occasions there, with ten top-five finishes across both events; including second place in the Coca-Cola 600 back in may after just falling short to Austin Dillon’s fuel strategy. It is very possible that Kyle could end up crossing Charlotte off of his short list of tracks he’s yet to win at by the end of the weekend.
Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Charlotte will be televised by Premier Sports, NBCSN and NBC this weekend. First practice and Coors-Light Pole Qualifying will take place on Friday. Two more practice sessions will follow on Saturday, with the 2017 Bank of America 500 completing the weekend on Sunday.