NASCAR PREVIEW: CHARLOTTE
By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor
Memorial Day weekend is one of our country’s most patriotic celebrations. It’s a time to reflect on those who gave their lives so that we may live in freedom. Families gather around the grille in fellowship with a beer in hand. If there’s a TV on at any point in the afternoon, it will probably feature the Greatest Spectacle in Racing: The Indianapolis 500. Millions of people will tune in to watch Indycar’s travel at breathtaking speeds surpassing 230 mph, risking life and limb for glory of kissing those famous bricks. Indy will be by far the fastest race of the day, but the longest race will take place as the sun begins to set in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For 600 miles, NASCAR Cup Series stars will endure grueling temps and mental exhaustion. The Coca-Cola 600 has been one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events, for both its length and difficulty. A lap around Charlotte is not too difficult for drivers. Its high banking allows drivers to carry plenty of speed to the point where they could hold the throttle wide open on new tires. As the tires wear however, and the laps begin to pile up, a mental toll begins to take place.
Temperatures can reach 140 degrees inside the racecar depending on how hot the air around them gets. There are cooling systems that reach inside the driver’s helmet and fire suit, but the heat still finds a way to fatigue the body. Hydration is key for staying mentally strong for four-plus hours in a hot racecar.
Mental toughness is often paired with this race due to its length, but this isn’t your Sunday drive. Charlotte is a momentum track. Laps here can be ruined with one slip of the wheel. It’s crucial for drivers to hit their marks.
Drivers have a funny saying. When they approach a corner at top speed, everything seems to slow down. In NASCAR, the drivers are searching for the best line to take to find speed and what makes their car feel the most comfortable. This is often referred to as their “mark.” This mark can sometimes only be 6 inches wide and drivers need to hit this spot perfectly to maximize their car’s potential lap after lap. It’s like a quarterback slinging the football in a small window in-between a hungry linebacker and speedy cornerback. One inch to the left or right and that ball is not getting to its target.
It’s been a trend the last couple seasons for many tracks. Laying down traction compound in different areas of the racetrack helps to improve each lane and encourage side-by-side racing. Charlotte did it in last year’s 600 and will be doing the same on Sunday. This traction compound is only applied to the upper lanes of the racetrack and bottom lane is left alone. The goal is to have the shortest way around the track have less grip than the longest way around the track. At some point during the race these grooves will even out and drivers will have plenty of options to find speed as the track changes from day to night.
The cars this weekend will feature their high downforce/low horsepower configuration. This means more on throttle time in the corners and an emphasis on maintaining momentum in the corners. In 2021, it seems that whoever finds a way to better rotate their car through the corner stands the best chance of running up front. Clean air is king with this rules package. More air on the nose means more grip. There isn’t much are when a driver is back in traffic. So it pays to have a car that is good in dirty air to make passes and work your way to the front.
Kyle Larson has been one of the best on 1.5 mile tracks this year. His #5 machine is excellent at rotating through the corners and making passes in traffic. When that car does reach the lead, it’s bad fast in clean air. Since starting at Hendrick Motosports, Larson has one win and three top-5 finishes. Not to mention he’s finished second in the last three races. That hot streak should carry over on Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr. has won three times in 2021. While none of them have come with this rules package, Truex does have two Coca-Cola 600 victories on his belt, with the most recent coming in 2019.
Kyle Busch is beginning to really find his stride in 2021. With a win a Kansas a few races ago, he may not be a bad pick to go the distance at Charlotte. He’s earned three top-5s in four 1.5-mile tracks this season. Busch also dominated this race back in 2018 by leading nearly every lap. He shouldn’t be ruled on this time.
Chase Elliott won last week in a rain-soaked COTA road course. The win should be a shot in the arm for a team that only has one top-5 at 1.5 mile tracks this season. Elliott did take his #9 car to victory lane in Charlotte twice last season on the oval and could have won in last year’s 600 only to give the lead on a pit stop.
Denny Hamlin has yet to win in 2021, but has been consistently running toward the front and has managed to maintain the points lead. In the four 1.5 mile races this year he’s finished fourth twice.
Homestead winner William Byron has been quietly consistent with eleven top-10s this season. He and his HMS teammates look stout at the big ovals. Look for him to score points again on Sunday.
Brad Keselowski won this race last year, but 2021 has been hit or miss for the driver of the #2 Ford. He managed to get a win at Talladega last month, but since he scored a third place at Kansas and failed to crack the top-15 in the last three races.
Finding victory be a challenge for every driver in NASCAR’s longest race. Race fans love seeing cars scream by in a flash of color. But, what you may not see if what will be sitting on the windshield of every car in the field. The names of fallen heroes will be riding along with NASCAR’s biggest stars. Their stories will be mentioned on the broadcast over 600 miles. Let it be a reminder that we can sit back and enjoy racing in America as free people because of the brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Be thankful to be free this weekend and enjoy the badass sport that is NASCAR racing. Happy Memorial Day!
Let’s have ourselves a race!
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