Coca-Cola 600 Preview: All Eyes on Logano

by May 25, 2014

Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s the oval racing equivalent to a marathon, the concluding event to the Memorial Day weekend’s trifecta of racing and a hometown race for many on the grid, tonight is the 55th running of the legendary Coca-Cola 600.

Perhaps the favorite to take tonight’s 600 is a driver who has never won at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in his career in the Sprint Cup Series. Joey Logano (Team Penske) heads into tonight’s race with the lowest average finish of any driver at the 1.5-mile D-shaped oval. The driver of the No. 22 Pennzoil Ford is also the winner of this year’s race at Texas, another 1.5-mile D-shaped oval. Logano has a history of solid performances at Charlotte with three top-fives and six top-10s coming in 10 starts at the track for the now 24-year-old (Logano celebrated his birthday on Saturday.)

Logano may have an uphill battle in attempting to get to victory lane. Even though they won at Charlotte last October with Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski; Ford have not won a Coca-Cola 600 since Mark Martin won the race for Roush-Fenway Racing in 2002. Even though history hasn’t been kind to the Dearborn-based manufacturer in this event, the manufacturer and Team Penske’s 1.5-mile program is second to none this year.

Hendrick Motorsports’ current stable of drivers have combined for 15 total wins at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and nine total Coca-Cola 600s. Jimmie Johnson has been the quickest driver in the field across the entire weekend, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS has not only taken the pole position for tonight’s race but has also been consistently near the top of each practice session speed-wise. Although he is the active wins leader at Charlotte with six career wins at the circuit, Johnson’s last win here came in 2009.

Fellow Hendrick driver, Kasey Kahne, is a four-time Charlotte winner who is looking to build on his third-place result at Kansas and get into victory lane – hopefully cementing his spot in the 2014 Chase in the process. Kahne’s last win in Charlotte came much more recently than Johnson’s when he won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2012 for HMS, Kahne’s win two years ago was the last time Hendrick won at the speedway. The Emunclaw, Washington, native is currently going through a hot streak at the track with five straight top-10s and two runner-up finishes here last year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick Motorsports) is the only driver for his team that has never won at Charlotte. Although he has a goose egg in his wins column at the track, Earnhardt has come very close on several occasions to winning this event. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard car has two top-10 finishes in 2011 and 2012 in the 600 and was running in the top-10 again in 2013 before being involved in an accident on Lap 259. The 88 team has been firing on all eight cylinders this season with Earnhardt off to a career season, this year’s running of the Coca-Cola 600 may provide Earnhardt and his crew with their best opportunity yet to get into victory lane at Charlotte.

As for the fourth Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon, Sunday may provide the four-time series champion with a tougher challenge than normal in the 600. Gordon has been enduring through back pain from spasms throughout the entire weekend and has tabbed Regan Smith as his backup driver in case he is unable to race at any point tonight. Gordon already has a win at Kansas this year and would not have to worry about missing the Chase should he have to switch with Smith at any stage in tonight’s race.

A driver who had been flying underneath everybody’s radar prior to last week’s All-Star Race was Jamie McMurray of Chip Ganassi Racing. McMurray claimed victory in the exhibition event last week with a strong performance in the late stages of the race that allowed him to power away from Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Matt Kenseth (Joe Gibbs Racing) to win his first ever All-Star Race. McMurray is also a two-time points race winner at Charlotte, with both of his victories coming in the fall race. McMurray’s last points win in Charlotte came in 2010 – that race being notable for also being McMurray’s last top-15 finish at the circuit. Despite not having much success at the track since his 2010 win, McMurray enters tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 with momentum on his side and with a terrific speedway package provided by Chip Ganassi Racing that has yielded some strong results for both McMurray and his teammate Kyle Larson this year.

Danica Patrick (Stewart-Haas Racing) has a chance to play spoiler tonight. Patrick is coming off of the heels of her strongest non-restrictor plate finish of her career with a seventh-place result at Kansas two weeks ago. Patrick’s No. 10 Go Daddy Chevrolet has been fast through this entire race weekend as was proven by her qualifying result that placed the Roscoe, Illinois, native fourth on the grid for tonight. Patrick was also able to place herself in the top-10 in both the first and third practice sessions of the weekend. Tonight’s race provides the second-year full-time driver with the perfect opportunity to silence some of her detractors. For those who cast aside the No. 10 team’s performance at Kansas as a fluke, another strong run tonight is going to require some extraordinary effort to dismiss as another ‘chance result.’

The Coca-Cola 600 will air on television on FOX tonight with coverage beginning at 5:30 p.m ET. The Performance Racing Network (PRN) and SiriusXM Satellite NASCAR Radio 90 will provide radio coverage tonight as well.

The Fourth Turn’s Hunter Thomas will be on the grounds of the Charlotte Motor Speedway tonight taking exclusive pictures of the event and providing live updates of tonight’s proceedings. For live updates of tonight’s race, follow @TheFourthTurn, @HunterThomas08, and @KPokrefky on Twitter to stay up-to-date with the 55th running of the Coca-Cola 600.