Charlotte, NASCAR’s home base hasn’t been a racetrack where everything’s coming up roses for this sport. Its premier event, the Coca-Cola 600 has gone from a peak of 10.2 million TV viewers in 2005 to just 6.4 million last year, a decline of 37 percent over the past decade. It’s a track that’s been hurt by “levigation,” higher speeds and aerodynamic dependence; the whole reason the sport’s All-Star Race suffered through a revolutionary set of rules changes in the first place is because the leader would scoot out front and disappear. Until Saturday night, when Joey Logano stuck his nose in front of Kyle Larson to win it no All-Star Race had been decided with a pass inside of five laps to go since 2009.
But the sport’s original 1.5-mile intermediate oval, despite its challenges and declining crowds remains one of the sport’s special tracks. In the sport’s old Winston Million program, around from 1985-97 a driver could win a $1 million bonus if he took three of the sport’s four “crown jewel” events: Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 was on the list, joining the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 at Darlington and the spring race at Talladega. While preserving equipment isn’t what it used to be for the sport’s longest race – last year’s event featured three engine failures, none by a Chase-contending team – the drivers still respect the challenge they face here. Held on the same day of the Indy 500, there may be no long-term bonus for winning but the feeling is there’s extra eyes and prestige on this event; its stature remains on the level of a “crown jewel.”
Yet the list of drivers still seeking their first 600 trophy is longer than you think, perhaps more notable than those seeking their first Daytona 500. It includes the sport’s Most Popular Driver, its reigning champion and a few “double duty” drivers who have fallen short at both their 500 quest and NASCAR’s longest race. Here’s a look at who’s still shut out during Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte…
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Who knew when Earnhardt won the Coke 600 pole during his rookie season, leading 175 laps en route to a fourth-place finish he’d still be searching for a Charlotte victory 16 years later? Most equate Earnhardt’s Charlotte struggles with this 2011 ending where he ran out of fuel on turn 3 of the final lap. The team does enter this week with momentum, earning a third-place finish in the All-Star Race and Earnhardt was especially vocal about wanting to win this event before he retires.
Kyle Busch. Busch, following his Mother’s Day Weekend triumph at Kansas Speedway has just two tracks left on the Cup circuit where he hasn’t won. Charlotte is one of them. Since aligning with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 Busch has finished third in the Coke 600 three times; overall, he’s led 907 laps at this track over 24 career starts in both that event and the series’ fall race here held in October. In fact, there’s only one track on the circuit, Richmond, where Busch has earned more top-5 finishes throughout his career (he has ten at Charlotte). That leaves him putting a little extra bulls-eye on Sunday’s race with a Chase bid already under lock-and-key in his back pocket.
Tony Stewart. Stewart, still smarting after the All-Star Race doesn’t exactly smile in general the second he steps foot inside CMS. The last time he had a top-5 finish at the track? Well that would be 2003, visiting Victory Lane in the fall race which is also the only Cup event he’s ever won here. Two years later, he endured a vicious wreck in that same fall event that threatened to derail a championship bid; his best finish at the track since turning driver/owner in 2009 has been seventh. While teammate Kevin Harvick has been strong at Charlotte, taking the 2013 version of the 600 you’d be hard-pressed to find a Memorial Sunday race here over the past decade where Stewart has contended. How bizarre that one of the most successful at the Indy 500 / Coke 600 double-dip will likely end up shut out in both events.
Joey Logano & Brad Keselowski. Saturday night’s 1-2 finishers have yet to earn their first 600 trophy. Their “goose eggs” aren’t as noticeable as the trio of drivers above; both have victories in the fall Charlotte race and Logano, in particular boasts a strong average finish of 9.6 at the track. But during a week where the 100th Indy 500 is the central focus for team owner Roger Penske each driver would like no better than to pull off the 500/600 sweep. Both understand the significance of Sunday, know the strength of their cars and possess a little extra incentive to cash in.
Denny Hamlin. At this year’s Daytona 500 Hamlin revealed a sense of increasing urgency to start knocking big races off his “bucket list.” Charlotte’s 600 remains one of them despite some knocking-on-the-door type performances in recent years. Hamlin was second in 2012, a potential winner had he not run out of fuel and was fourth a year later after winning the pole for the event. Considering the strength Joe Gibbs Racing has shown on intermediates this season that gives the No. 11 team credibility as a darkhorse contender.
Kyle Larson. Sure, it’s a column-ending throw-in; we all know Larson hasn’t won any Cup race yet, let alone one of the sport’s more prestigious. But the driver for the No. 42 team, after nearly winning Saturday night has had a month of near-misses. Larson wrecked at Kansas while inside the top 5, then fell just short after a dramatic battle with Matt Kenseth at Dover. Add in the late loss to Logano at the All-Star Race and it’s clear this team has gotten closer. Larson, who some still feel can grow into a superstar in this sport now heads to a race another young superstar, Jeff Gordon, earned his first win at back in 1994. Add in the Indy 500 reference above for his car owner, Chip Ganassi and there’s some extra incentive within this camp as well heading to Sunday.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.