The Frontstretch: Charlotte's Four Burning Questions: Translating Success And McMurray's Time To Shine by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday May 24, 2013

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Memorial Day Weekend is upon us ladies and gents, and with it we are treated to arguably the greatest single day in all of motorsports. This Sunday, the racing world will be treated to a triumvirate of great racing events from across the world: F1’s Grand Prix of Monaco, IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500, and the nightcap: NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. While those first two races are sure to be something special, the NASCAR world in particular will have it’s focus on the 600, arguably the most grueling event in the sport. All-Star winner Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend with the most momentum, but history shows us that individual performances in that race may not tell the whole story of what is to come in the 600. As per usual, we have much to address this week, so let’s get right to it.

1. Was the All-Star race a sign of things to come for the Coca-Cola 600?

Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star race so he’s a given for the 600, right? Matt says not so fast.

Conventional wisdom would tell you that the driver who wins the Sprint All-Star Race is the one who is most likely to drive to victory the following week in the Coca-Cola 600. It only makes sense given the fact that the All-Star and the Coca-Cola 600 run at the same track only one week apart. But alas, the two races simply do not correlate with one another as much as one would think. In fact, the two races might as well take place on different tracks. The sheer difference between the two races is evidenced in the fact that the winner of the All-Star Race has gone on to win the Coca-Cola 600 only three times in the past fourteen years. The prevailing question of course then, is what causes the two races to yield such differing results?

The most obvious difference between the two races is the length. The All-Star is a sprint, teams trim their cars out for pure short run speed and the drivers run qualifying laps the entire race. The Coca-Cola 600 on the other hand is an endurance race. The cars are set up for long run speed, and the best drivers are the ones who can adapt to changing track conditions over 600 miles, two things that are absent in the All-Star. As such, the races tend to play out to wildly different outcomes.

Bearing this in mind, you can more or less throw out anything you think you knew about the racing at Charlotte after the All-Star race. The cars will be setup differently, drivers will be running the race differently, and a whole lot can happen over 600 miles.

2. Will passing be as difficult as it was in the All-Star race?

Due to a variety of factors, the Gen 6 cars were noticeably less pass-happy in the All-Star race than they have been in past intermediate track events this season. You can blame the smooth and tight Charlotte track, the high speeds, or the short runs, but the fact is that passing was something of a difficult endeavor last Saturday night.

However, while nothing between now and last week has actually changed to drastically improve the cars’ ability to pass, it’s not unreasonable to think that the Coca-Cola 600 will be a bit more competitive than the All-Star race was, for a few reasons. One reason why passing was so difficult last week was that the short segments prevented tire wear from truly coming into play. This coming Sunday, there will likely be longer runs that allow for tire wear to come into play, thus allowing the field to spread out a bit and let the faster long run cars move through the field with more ease.

Another key thing to remember is that track conditions for the Coca-Cola 600 will be wildly different than that of the All-Star. The race will start in the day and end at night. This “moving target” of track conditions generally makes the track a bit racier as different teams have different handling characteristics in their cars at different times of the day.

All told, while raw passing will probably be only marginally more prevalent on Sunday, the differing track conditions native to the Coca-Cola 600 should still provide for a more engaging and strategy-filled race than the one we saw this past weekend.

3. Could this be Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s weekend to shine?

For the first time since 2010, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing is finally coming alive. No longer the worst of the fully funded teams (that distinction belongs to the maligned Stewart Haas Racing outfit at the moment), EGR seems to have hit on something with the Gen 6 cars that has yielded a great deal of in-race speed. With cars finally capable of meeting the caliber of it’s drivers, EGR seems ready to visit Victory Lane once again. The question of course is, could that win come this weekend?

You bet it could, and if it that win is going to happen, it will likely be provided by Jamie McMurray. McMurray won the Sprint Showdown last weekend and performed admirably in the All-Star race. Not only that, his team’s performance in 1.5 mile track events thus far has been solid enough to let me believe this team can finally get it done. But why this weekend? Why is the Coca-Cola 600 the race that McMurray could breakthrough?

It all comes down to McMurray’s penchant for stepping up in the sport’s biggest races. McMurray nearly won this race back in 2010, a year very similar to 2013 for EGR, and has delivered two wins at Charlotte over the course of his career. Outside of the plate tracks, Charlotte is McMurray’s best track. Combine that fact with the reality of EGR’s newfound speed along with McMurray’s propensity for performing well in crown jewel events, and it becomes rather clear that this could very well be Jamie McMurray’s weekend to shine.

4. Will JGR dominate once again? Will any other teams step up?

Thus far in 2013, Joe Gibbs Racing has been the class of the Sprint Cup Series. The team has won 5 of the series’ first 11 events, and dominated much of the races they did not win. Drivers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth have made a mockery of the field thus far and established themselves as true title contenders and the best early adopters of the Gen 6 cars. All told, unless something catastrophic happens, JGR will likely be a threat to win once again this weekend.

Now, assuming JGR goes off and dominates the Coca-Cola 600 like they have at most other tracks this season, what does that say for the rest of the year? For one thing, it means they are likely going to stay up front for the duration of the season. History tells us that by the time we reach Charlotte each year, each team’s performance pretty much levels off to where it will be for the rest of the year. The 600 exposes every aspect of a team, and serves as the perfect litmus test as to what a team is capable of in a given year. If the rest of the Sprint Cup garage has any hope of threatening JGR’s hold on the series in 2013, they need to step up this weekend.

All told, if JGR goes off and dominates again and no other team can even sniff them on Sunday, it certainly would not bode well for the competitive balance of the rest of the 2013 season. Another win in what is arguably the second biggest race of the year would only further bolster JGR’s momentum, and thus put them on the fast track for even more success going forward toward the Chase.

This is a final warning to teams if the Sprint Cup garage: step up now, or prepare to get stepped on the rest of the season.

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05/24/2013 10:31 AM

Things to watch for:

Pre-race inspection issues

When will debris cautions come out?

Pit road penalties

Will there be as many empty seats this weekend as last weekend? I doubt it but who knows?

05/24/2013 12:12 PM

I think that tire wear will be better over the long run and temp changes as it gets later will make this race much more interesting than last week.

05/24/2013 11:29 PM

May 25th is the date for the Richie Evans and Jimmy Shampine Memorials at Oswego Speedway. Best racing in the country other than the Oswego Classic. And the hot dogs are great too. When will the first Dick Trickle Memorial be?

05/25/2013 10:53 AM

my 4 questions:
since the race is 600 laps how many more laps down with danica be?
how long will the race take to watch on dvr?
should i even bother?
will jj not win?

05/25/2013 05:21 PM

hmm, well, based on recent events, I don’t expect much from this race. Although the longer runs may indeed help the passing effort on the track, if Goodyear brings a hard tire, I expect most of it to be a snoozer, so I plan to go out to dinner with friends, maybe I’ll get home in time to watch the end. I won’t DVR it – the race broadcasts aren’t worth recording.
How many laps down will DP be? Maybe the fans should make it into a drinking game?