NASCAR & Auto Racing

5 storylines to follow at Charlotte: NASCAR tradition, Bubba and a race prediction

NASCAR driver Kyle Larson celebrates winning Saturday’s NASCAR All-Star race in a cloud of smoke from a burnout at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
NASCAR driver Kyle Larson celebrates winning Saturday’s NASCAR All-Star race in a cloud of smoke from a burnout at Charlotte Motor Speedway. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

If this week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway turns out as well as last Saturday’s All-Star festivities, then we’re all in good shape.

The All-Star Race, for the second straight year, featured some of the more exciting racing of this NASCAR season. Of course Sunday’s 600 is the exact opposite sort of race — the shortest vs. the longest, most notably — but at least there are plenty of storylines to follow:

1. Does Larson’s All-Star momentum actually carry over?

For the first time in almost two years, Kyle Larson won something in NASCAR. Now, admittedly, winning the All-Star Race counts for no points and doesn’t do anything to get him back into the playoffs... but it’s a start, right?

Larson even said as much Saturday night: “It’s been such a rocky start and we haven’t gotten any momentum at all up until the last couple weeks a little bit, and then today I hope kind of helps it.”

Two years ago, Larson was a Cup Series championship contender who saw his chances sink with a blown engine in the playoffs. He’s still the same budding talent he was then, but it’s worth watching to see if his All-Star victory translates into something more tangible. Currently, he’s 15th in the points standings.

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NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace knocks two Coca-Cola bottles together aka. Stone Cold Steve Austin style as he is introduced to the fans prior to the running of the Monster Energy All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday, May 18, 2019. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

2. Can Bubba Wallace change his trajectory at home?

Bubba Wallace’s sophomore season at NASCAR’s highest level has gone... about as poorly as you could ask for. He doesn’t have a single Top 20 finish, and multiple times in the last month, he’s broken down with reporters when talking about those struggles. For such a fun, promising young driver, it’s really been a difficult stretch to watch.

But for the first time arguably since his incredible runner-up finish at the 2018 Daytona 500, Wallace has a reason to be hopeful. He won the second stage of the All-Star Open, put himself in contention during the All-Star Race, and even managed a fifth-place finish (not that it counts for anything). Wallace’s emotions were still out in the open, but happy tears are much more welcome than sad ones. Wallace is one of NASCAR’s more magnetic drivers, and the sport as a whole should be rooting for him to springboard off his moments last weekend.

3. Is the Hendrick Motorsports turnaround for real?

Uh, maybe? That’s about as honest an answer as you can give right now. Chase Elliott has won this year and is fourth in the standings, but he’s the only one. Alex Bowman has three straight second-place finishes, but still no Cup wins in his career. Jimmie Johnson is two years into his search for another championship-caliber car, and young William Byron has a bit further to go before he can fully capitalize on his talent.

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So where does that leave Hendrick? It is still clearly one of NASCAR’s preeminent operations, as all four drivers participated in Saturday’s All-Star Race. But saying they’re in the same stratosphere as Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske right now just isn’t the case. HMS has a long and storied history at Charlotte, and finding Victory Lane on Sunday would go a long ways toward re-establishing their elite status.

4. Can Kyle Busch repeat, get back to winning ways?

Kyle Busch finally checked Charlotte off his list last May when he won his first Coca-Cola 600 (he’d finished second or third seven different times before that). That meant Busch became the first driver to have won at every track on the current Cup Series schedule. Of course, the 600 was just one dominant showing from Busch in 2018, who also coasted to the championship race before ultimately falling to Joey Logano.

So the question is, can Busch repeat? If there were any one driver you’d take on any given race day, Busch again would have to be the choice. He’s already won three races this season and sits second in the standings. That said, he’s currently on his worst three-race stretch of the year. Busch was in contention at the All-Star Race — can he repeat and get back to the formula he had earlier this year?

5. Prediction time. And your winner is...

Predictions almost always turn out poorly for the predictor, but here we go. There are any number of drivers who could win the 600 and it not come as a surprise at all — the aforementioned Busch, Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and many others. But give me one driver who is probably hungrier for a win right now than any other. He should have won the All-Star Race, and if his team gives him the same elite car this weekend, he’s as good a bet as anyone to make it to Victory Lane. Prediction: Kevin Harvick.

Brendan Marks: (704) 358-5889; @BrendanRMarks

This week’s NASCAR race at Charlotte: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600.

Distance: 400 laps, or 600 miles.

Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile asphalt oval in Concord.

When: 6 p.m. Sunday.

TV: FOX.

Radio: PRN.

Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.

Also this week: Alsco 300, Xfinity Series, Charlotte Motor Speedway, 1 p.m., Saturday, FS1.

Worth mentioning: By virtue of his win last year, Kyle Busch became the first Cup Series driver to win at every track on the current schedule (excluding the new Charlotte Roval).

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Kyle Larson: It’s not a points-paying race, but winning the All-Star Race at least serves as a much-needed confidence booster.

Bubba Wallace: Forget that he didn’t win the All-Star Race — Wallace was the star of the show Saturday, and his emotional honesty continues to be compelling.

NOT

Austin Dillon: He got caught up in a wreck not of his doing, but it’s entirely possible that’s the last All-Star Race for which Dillon qualifies for a while.

Ryan Newman: Between fighting Clint Bowyer and a poor finish in the All-Star Race, Newman is going to limp back into Charlotte for the second weekend.



Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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