By Cole Cusumano
NASCAR returns to its homeland of North Carolina and Charlotte Motor Speedway, hot off the heels of one of the wildest events in the sport’s history at Circuit of the Americas. Following a divisive change of pace, it’s only fitting the sanctioning body regains a sense of normalcy in the form of the coveted Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.
The crown jewel event is more than just an extra 100 miles in length. It’s about honoring and celebrating fallen heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the United States of America. Unlike 2020, the weekend will be celebrated at full capacity, which is what the brave men and women of this country deserve.
It’s become tradition for each car throughout the field to honor soldiers who lost their lives too soon by displaying their names above the windshield, along with many sporting red, white and blue patriotic paint schemes.
Past the halfway point of the regular season, the playoff picture is becoming a bit more defined after an unpredictable start to the year. Drivers will have to take this into account while powering through the endurance aspect of the primetime event.
Many would agree the on-track product has drastically diminished at Charlotte (and 1.5-mile tracks for that matter) over the past few years. But with the competition being as leveled as it’s been in recent memory, there’s good reason to feel enthusiastic for this weekend, as there always is no matter how dull the racing has been in recent Coca-Cola 600s.
NASCAR Cup Series
Last year, Brad Keselowski bested Chase Elliott after a questionable decision by Alan Gustafson for the No. 9 team to pit with before an overtime finish in one of the more memorable events at Charlotte as of late. Comparing the event in 2020 to this season through 14 races, it’s not a stretch to say we could see similar dominance.
Hendrick Motorsport is chasing history after tying Petty Enterprises on the all-time wins list with Elliott’s victory at COTA. Riding back-to-back trips to victory lane, it could be argued there’s no place like home for the Chevrolet stable to sustain their torrid momentum.
Kyle Larson has led 509 laps and boasts a 5.6 average finish in intermediate events. Oh, and it helps he’s currently strung together three consecutive runner-ups. Winningest driver at HMS, Alex Bowman, led the most laps in the Coca-Cola 600 last year and is trying to do something he hasn’t accomplished all year — pick up his third consecutive top-10.
William Byron unfortunately broke his 11-race top-10 streak at COTA, but lucky for him, he’s one of only three to place inside the top-10 at every intermediate track this season. Coming off his first win of 2021, Elliott’s scrutinization of underperforming can be laid to rest. He won the 312-mile event at Charlotte last year and placed second in the Coca-Cola 600, making him a strong contender to extend Hendrick Motorsports’ win streak to three.
The only obstacle for the reigning Champion is he will be without his spotter Eddie D’Hondt, after he was suspended indefinitely for an arrest that took place on May 12. Trey Poole, who contributed to spotting for Elliott at COTA, will take over.
In addition to Byron, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are the only other drivers to score top-10s at every intermediate event this season. Coincidentally, they also won the two Coca-Cola 600s prior to 2020. Joe Gibbs Racing will undoubtedly be a force on Sunday.
Trending on Twitter: Kurt Busch isn’t going anywhere.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Similarly to COTA last week, Kyle Busch dominated the recent Xfinity at Charlotte. The two-time Cup Champion won’t be competing this weekend, so series regulars can have a break — sort of.
Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe will be racing in the Alsco Uniforms 300, and this could come as a concern, considering a current Cup Series regular has won at Charlotte in Xfinity dating back to 1998, with the exception of Reddick in 2019, who was a series regular back then.
All eyes will be on the playoff bubble, as there are some serious contenders and underdogs in position for triumph or tragedy in the coming weeks. JGR’s Brandon Jones is only 12 points to the good over Brandon Brown — who could be posed for a great run. The self-funded driver has a 6.5 average finish in the car he’ll be fielding this weekend.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Riley Herbst sits 41 points behind the cutoff, in the midst of possibly one of his most difficult seasons to date. Since tying his season-best finish of fourth at Talladega Superspeedway, he hasn’t placed above 16th in three races.
Trending on Twitter: Little Gator welcomes another Baby Gator.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Following an incredibly composed race at COTA all around, in which Todd Gilliland scored his second career NASCAR sanctioned win, the Truck Series is still struggling to find some clarity among the talent.
Prior to the recent two races won by Sheldon Creed and Gilliland, Toyota dominated the series with Ben Rhodes, John Hunter Nemechek or a Cup regular winning the other seven. It’s beginning to feel as if there’s a changing of the tide and maybe we’ll start to see some contenders from last season shape into form.
Creed’s GMS racing teammate, Zane Smith, is among a select few frontrunners who need to kick it into high gear. The runner-up in 2020 has yet to score a top-five this season and only has five top-10s through nine races. As a result, the 21-year-old only sits 34 points above the cutline in eighth-spot.
Stewart Friesen is another driver who’s failed to execute in 2021. Luckily for the driver of the No. 52, he’s been able to keep his head above water, 32 points above Carson Hocevar in 10th, even with only two top-10s on the season.
Speaking on Hocevar, he’s been one of the feel-good stories across the sport. Sitting 10 points to the good over former Champion, Johnny Sauter, the 18-year-old has established himself as a clear contender in the Truck Series. He’s coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes as he prepares for his NASCAR debut at Charlotte.
Trending on Twitter: Keith McGee will be sponsored by Barstool Sports after a main sponsor backed out last minute.
For the second consecutive week, we’ll have a full slate of on-track action for all three NASCAR National Series. Practice will take place for all three divisions on Friday, May 28, with qualifying occurring before the North Carolina Lottery 200 at 8:30 p.m. ET for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Qualifying will take place for both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series on May 29, before the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Alsco Uniforms 300 at 1 p.m. ET. All these events will be aired on FS1.
Finally, the crowned jewel Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte Motor Speedway will take place on May 30 at 6 p.m. ET, with national coverage on Fox