NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday (May 30) after a downright dominant performance where he led a career-high 327 laps. 

Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Alex Bowman rounded out the top-five finishers.

See also
Kyle Busch Breaks Up Hendrick Party With 3rd-Place Run in Coca-Cola 600

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson raced out to the early lead with his teammate Elliott following to second. Hendrick Motorsports was the story early and often, as Larson, Elliott and Byron controlled the top three spots with a huge gap to fourth.

Green flag pit stops began midway through the first stage. The only major hiccup was Ross Chastain, who had an oil pump belt issue and had to go behind the wall to fix it. Larson cycled back to the lead after pit stops and led under green until the first stage ended at lap 100.

Kevin Harvick broke up the HMS trio out front with a quick pit stop, exiting third behind Larson and Elliott. Larson pulled ahead on the restart and led until lap 133 when Elliott finally got by him. 

At lap 141, Kurt Busch was forced to the garage with a similar issue to what his teammate had. On the track, Elliott held off Larson and Byron as green flag stops began at lap 147. Larson got everything he could coming to pit road, pulling alongside Elliott and forcing the No. 9 to slow to get to his pit box. As a result, Larson cycled back to the lead ahead of his HMS teammates.

The first non-stage caution came on lap 172 when Busch’s engine expired just after returning to the track.

Bowman, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano took two tires while the rest of the leaders took four. Bowman got out front on the restart with 23 to go in the stage before Hamlin passed him for the top spot with 20 to go. Elliott quickly got around him with 18 to go, then it was Larson passing his teammate with 13 to go and sailing to another stage win.

Larson, of course, led on the stage three restart with his teammates close behind. Byron stayed close and got around him for the lead on lap 231, his first time out front all night.

Green flag stops came midway through the stage, and yet again, Larson entered second but cycled back on the track in first. Byron was reeling in Larson as the third stage neared its conclusion before Ryan Newman’s tire blew. He hit the wall with five laps left in the stage, which ended under yellow. The stage win was Larson’s series-leading ninth of the year.

Kyle Busch moved to second on pit road behind Larson, with Byron, Elliott and Bowman rounding out the top five. Busch briefly got to the lead on the restart until Larson showed his strength and wrestled back control.

The final green flag stops began at lap 345 and Larson only extended his lead on this sequence. The battle for second between Elliott, Busch and Byron was intense — some of the best racing all night. Larson, meanwhile, simply checked out on the field. He extended his lead to over 10 seconds by the time the checkered flag flew at lap 400.

The victory was Larson’s second of the season, eighth of his career and record-setting 269th for Hendrick.

Who stood out?

Larson finally closed out the win after three straight second-place finishes. The story of his season has been dominating races and not being able to seal the deal. He’s now led at least 100 laps in five races this year, winning twice and finishing second twice in those runs. Whether it was a self-inflicted mistake or someone else’s error, Larson just hasn’t been able to capitalize when it feels like he should have four or five wins already.

Big picture, this performance padded eight more playoff points to Larson’s series-leading total. He’s starting to separate himself, which will create a nice cushion for the postseason. The No. 5 Chevy driver is up to second in the standings, which will only help add even more playoff points if he can stay there.

The Coke 600 was a big step for Elliott and the No. 9 team. He’s clearly shown he can win at road courses. The 1.5-mile program has been a step behind HMS teammates Larson and Byron this year, though. At Charlotte, he was right in the mix with those two, even getting out front and leading for 22 laps (second-most behind Larson).

Elliott has regained his championship form in recent weeks, finishing in the top 10 in five straight races. The schedule has lined up nicely for him with road courses and tracks in his wheelhouse like Charlotte, Dover International Speedway and Darlington Raceway. He will again be favored next week at the Sonoma road course.

Kyle Busch continues to impress and I think it’s officially safe to say he has his swagger back. Busch has been on it since the win at Kansas Speedway earlier this month. He ran third at Darlington, then led laps and won a stage at Circuit of the Americas before running well at Charlotte. The No. 18 was the only car that could run anywhere near the HMS stable.

Busch hasn’t consistently shown this type of race-winning speed like he has over the past month since his second championship in 2019. Last year, he had flashes, but the consistency was never there. New crew chief Ben Beshore seems to be pushing the right buttons, as we’ve even seen a more relaxed Busch on the radio this season. Right now, he is the best threat to HMS, especially at 1.5-mile tracks.

Who fell flat?

Even before a cut tire put him nine laps down, Martin Truex Jr. had an oddly quiet night in Charlotte. We’ve seen him absolutely stink up the field here in 2016, 2017 and 2019, with victories in ‘16 and ‘19. On Sunday, he was a 12th-to-15th-place car, at best, before a tire issue forced him to pit road and a 29th-place finish. It was also the third straight race Truex finished 19th or worse.

This slump shouldn’t matter too much for Truex in the long run. All three of his wins this season came at playoff tracks, including the postseason finale (Phoenix Raceway) and the penultimate racetrack (Martinsville Speedway). He still has more wins than any other driver, but performances like Sunday’s are throwing away key points while his competitors scoop them up. 

Logano struggled again as his 1.5-mile program has been a step slow all season. At the five 1.5-mile tracks, the No. 22 has an average finish of 16.6 with one top 10 (ninth at Las Vegas). Throughout his career, we’ve seen Logano turn it on and win when he needs to. He’s already locked into the playoffs with a win at Bristol Dirt, so perhaps the team is just experimenting. Still, they can’t be too optimistic about this intermediate track speed right now.

What did this race prove?

The Cup Series is Rick Hendrick’s personal playground right now. After three straight wins, HMS broke Petty Enterprises’ win record with its 269th victory. Perhaps more impressive is that the three straight wins have come from three separate drivers. It was also the third straight race where HMS finished first and second. We’re simply running out of ways to explain how much faster they are than the rest of the field, especially at these 1.5-mile tracks.

And how fitting it was that Hendrick’s record-setting win came with the No. 5, the same number that it all began with at Martinsville in 1984.

The Coke 600 wasn’t especially entertaining, but that doesn’t mean things need to change. That’s racing;  not every race is going to be great. The 550 horsepower package could be the subject of ridicule this week, but that’s not how I see it this time. In 2016, Truex was even better than Larson was Sunday. That was with a different package. Charlotte has just consistently underperformed lately. I still think that doesn’t mean it’s time to break tradition and shorten the race or move it to another track.

Richard Childress Racing is quietly putting together its best season as an organization since the days of Kevin Harvick. RCR did put Newman in the Championship 4 back in 2014, but the organization still wasn’t in as good of shape as it is right now. Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick both ran in the top 10 from start to finish on Sunday. They’ve been consistent and quick all year long — Dillon has six top 10s while Reddick has eight. By comparison, no RCR driver has had more than nine top 10s in a season since Newman in 2017. To have both cars with a chance to top that this early in the season shows the progress the team has made in 2021.

Paint scheme of the race

We see a lot of good-looking patriotic paint schemes every year on Memorial Day weekend. More than half the field at Charlotte was draped in red, white and blue designs. The car that stood out to me was a simple black and white scheme, though. Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 DoorDash Toyota respectfully honored and mourned those who died fighting for our country.

Better than last year?

Last year, the longest race was even longer after rain hit at lap 50. Once they got racing later in the night, Bowman won the first two stages as he and Truex paced the field. Elliott passed Keselowski for the lead with 38 to go and was poised to win until Byron spun with two laps to go. Elliott pitted while Keselowski stayed out and won in overtime. As usual, the race felt extremely long and wasn’t always fantastic racing, though the overtime finish was decent.

This year, the longest race was as short as I can remember. The race ended in four hours and 49 seconds after only two non-stage break cautions occurred when Kurt Busch’s engine blew and Newman’s tire blew. Larson shellacked the competition, meaning the more intriguing battle was for second.

These long races are always better when you have multiple drivers lead a bunch of laps. That didn’t happen Sunday and the finish was nowhere near as unexpected as last year, so I’ll rate this year’s race below 2020’s.

Playoff picture

Larson joins Truex and Bowman as the only drivers with multiple victories this season. There are currently five playoff spots open for non-winners, but two of those are extremely secure — Hamlin (+318) and Harvick (+153) — barring some chaos.

The three other drivers below Hamlin and Harvick are also beginning to pull ahead from 17th. Dillon (+92), Reddick (+61) and Chris Buescher (+55) are all in a great spot on points. One new winner outside the top 16 would completely blow things up, though, as they all would be close fighting for the final spots. Matt DiBenedetto (-55), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-62) and Kurt Busch (-83) are the closest drivers outside the playoffs.

Here’s a look at the full standings following Charlotte.

What’s next?

For the first time since 2019, the Cup Series will run at Sonoma Raceway in California after last year’s race was canceled due to COVID-19. The Toyota/Save Mart 350 is set for Sunday (June 6) at 4 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. The 90-lap, 226.8-mile event will have stage breaks after laps 20 and 40.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: CHARLOTTE

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

10 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
janice

kyke busch is happy cause he’s had practice and qualifying. he was very vocal on his dislike of not having these parts of race weekend.

Bill B

Another Memorial Day another boring 600 where one driver pretty much dominated the race. Turn the page and onto the next race.

Jo

Last week, we were asked if NASCAR should return to COTA? Bigger question: Should NASCAR even bother to race at Charlotte?

By comparison, the Indy 500 actually lived up to the hype and was a great race from start to finish. NASCAR doesn’t even deserve to be televised.

David Edwards

IMHO this thing about practice and qualifying is a joke. They have run thousands of laps at these tracks and have the best computer simulations that money can buy. A crutch for the drivers and boredom for those who find it interesting to watch.
Maybe when the latest “savior” car is introduced, but now I have better things to do.

Tom B

There should always be a a 1 hour shake down time on race morning.\
I thought this race was good even though it appeared to be a domination. There was lots of speed, green flag pit stops and sketchy passing. It is a long, long race and every thing can happen.
I was always wondering how NA$CAR was going to screw Kyle Larson out of the win.

Jo

Be sure to fly your Confederate Flag today. SMH! I knew Larson would attract your kind of fan.

David Edwards

Maybe it’s just coincidence that no companies are rushing to throw sponsor ship to Larson.
Times are changing. Hendrick will drag in something eventually I have no doubt. After all how would it look for such a successful driver not to be able to draw a sponsor.

Tom B

Jo,
You are so wrong about me.

Jo

Well, it’s clear that nobody is going to be calling you or anyone who reads or writes for FS for advice. Time has passed you by. LMBO!

Jo

So, then explain your comment about NASCAR “screwing Larson.” Obviously, you think the boy is some kind of “victim.”

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch