This weekend the Sprint Cup Series heads home to Charlotte Motor Speedway for race five in the Chase. The battle at the top is heating up with only three points between Matt Kenseth and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Kyle Larson and Brian Scott make their Sprint Cup Series debuts under the lights while Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his 500th Sprint Cup Series start.
Skirts and Scuffs photographer Charlotte Bray will be live at the track this weekend capturing the sights of the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series. Be sure to follow our Twitter and Instagram accounts for updates from the track.
How do our Chasers stack up? Here’s the rundown.
1. Matt Kenseth (points leader)
by: Rebecca Kivak
Matt Kenseth has been the class of the field in the Chase, finding the right combination of consistency and wins to command the championship standings since Chicagoland. But his 11th-place showing at Kansas enabled Jimmie Johnson to close the gap, creeping within three points of Kenseth’s lead.
Kenseth will try to pad and protect his points lead at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 1.5- mile track has been a good one for the driver of the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota. Kenseth boasts two wins here, including the 2011 Chase race. He has amassed seven top fives, 14 top 10s and an average finish of 14.2 in 28 starts.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has led 567 laps at Charlotte , including 112 in this year’s Coca-Cola 600. Kenseth finished 15th in NASCAR’s longest race, two laps down after getting caught up in a late-race incident. He finished 14th here last fall.
Despite a nearly impeccable start to the Chase - with respective finishes of first, first, fifth and 11th - Kenseth said Thursday at Charlotte that his performance has dropped off slightly. With the competition on his heels, every point counts. He’s aiming for another top finish at Charlotte to bolster his points lead.
“You always want to do better and I was pleased with the first two weeks obviously — Dover our performance was pretty good, but we slipped a little bit and then Kansas we were kind of off,” Kenseth said. “To have a legitimate shot at winning this thing you have to be in the top-three or five every week I think — you have to at least be in that group. Hopefully we can get a good finish Saturday.”
Side note: We'd like to give a warm welcome to our newest contributor, Stacey Owens. We are thrilled to have this amazing woman among our ranks! Welcome to the family, Stacey!
2. Jimmie Johnson (-3)
by: Stacey Owens
With six previous points wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as well as four All-Star wins to his credit, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team are excited to be racing at the track once dubbed "Jimmie's house."
Historically, the track has been good to Johnson. He won five of his six wins at Charlotte between 2003 and 2005. Johnson also boasts a series-best driver rating of 110.0 at the 1.5-mile track.
Heading into the fifth race of the Chase, Johnson is a scant three points back from points leader Matt Kenseth. Could this be the weekend he regains some of his former Charlotte glory?
"I'm excited to be racing at home in Charlotte this week," Johnson said. "The track has been really good to us over the years, and I certainly need another strong performance there, the way things are going in the Chase right now. So, I'm excited to get back."
This year, Johnson leads all Chase drivers for the most laps led at 1,429. Johnson's fans are anxious to see if he'll lead the most important one Saturday night in the Bank of America 500 — the last one.
3. Kevin Harvick (-25)
by: Rebecca Kivak
Kevin Harvick’s win at Kansas sprung the Richard Childress Racing driver into the thick of the championship battle. This weekend, Harvick will aim to make up more ground on points leader Matt Kenseth in NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, N.C.
Harvick has said he used to hate Charlotte Motor Speedway, but in recent years he has learned how to conquer the 1.5-mile track. He has won two Coca-Cola 600s – the sport’s most grueling race – including this year’s event. In addition to both wins, he has collected three top fives and eight top 10s in 25 starts at Charlotte. He has finished in the top 10 in five out of the last six races, pushing his average finish up to 17.3.
Harvick led 28 laps en route to his win in May. He finished 16th one year ago.
Harvick and the No. 29 Jimmy John's Chevrolet will start second in Saturday's Bank of America 500, using their race-winning car from Kansas. The team is confident they can build on their momentum and make a run at the championship.
“Last week went about as well as you could write it down on a piece of paper for us,” Harvick said at Charlotte on Thursday. “Sitting on the pole and winning the race is a little bit out of character from what we have done in the past. But I think for us it gives us a lot of confidence in the things that we can do and need to do to keep ourself in position to continue to race for this championship over the next several weeks.”
Since the beginning of the season, Harvick – who is set to join Stewart-Haas Racing next year - has proven the label of “lame duck” doesn’t apply to him. Winning a championship during his last year at RCR would silence his remaining doubters.
“Everybody has written us off from the beginning of the year to not be in the Chase and let along be competitive and winning race in the Chase,” Harvick said. “We will just keep bucking the system and hopefully it works out.”
4. Jeff Gordon (-32)
by: Katy Lindamood
It may have taken special circumstances to put Jeff Gordon in the Chase, but in the last four weeks he’s fought his way from 13th to fourth. Not bad for the four-time champion - not bad at all.
Gordon’s weekend is off to a strong start after earning the pole Thursday evening. His time of 27.791 seconds (194.308 mph) bested Kevin Harvick for the top starting position. This is Gordon’s ninth pole at CMS and his second of the season.
This may be “Jimmie’s House,” but Gordon is no slouch at the 1.5-mile track. In 41 starts, the No. 24 has racked up five wins, 16 top 5s and 21 top 10s. His average finish is 16.2. On the other hand, Gordon has failed to finish nearly a quarter of the races at Charlotte, including May’s Coca-Cola 600.
It’s been more than a decade since Gordon’s last title. Perhaps a win this weekend can start a drive to the championship.
5. Kyle Busch (-35)
by: Beth Bence Reinke
After a nightmarish weekend in Kansas where he crashed in the Nationwide race and finished 34th on Sunday, Kyle Busch is happy to see his beloved Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Charlotte is my favorite racetrack for a lot of reasons,” Busch said. “Just growing up watching races on TV, I loved watching the All-Star Race under the lights and the 600 with all the sparks flying and all the guys going after hard-fought, hard-racing wins. The Nationwide Series has been good to me there. The Truck Series has been pretty good to me there, too. But a Cup Series win has eluded me there.”
Busch would like nothing better than to replace that goose egg in the win column at Charlotte with a victory in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500. In addition to being his favorite track, it’s one of his strongest, with a record of eight top fives, 11 top 10s and a pole in 19 Sprint Cup starts.
Not only does the younger Busch have seven Nationwide wins and five Camping World Truck victories at Charlotte, he has top-10 finishes in 11 of the last 13 Cup points races at the track. A win has been almost within his grasp for the past three years at the fall race, with second-place showings in 2010 and 2011 and a fifth-place finish last year. A win would most likely give him a boost from his fifth-place spot in the championship standings.
“I hope my luck is turning around a bit and I can finally get that Sprint Cup win there with our M&M’s Camry. We’ve been very close there plenty of times over the last several years.”
6. Greg Biffle (-44)
by: Katy Lindamood
“I’m really happy with starting up front, especially after the week we had last week. We struggled a little bit, but ended up with a medium finish. I’m looking forward to Saturday night,” said Greg Biffle following his third-place qualifying run.
Biffle needs to follow up his solid lap with a strong finish if he hopes to make up ground in the Championship standings. Currently seated in sixth, 44 points behind his former teammate Matt Kenseth, Biffle hopes to become the only driver in history to win a title in all three of NASCAR’s top series.
Charlotte has dealt the No. 16 team its fair share of ups and downs over the years. In 21 starts Biffle has never visited victory lane, but has finished in the top 10 eight times since 2003. Two starts have ended with DNFs while five have produced finishes worse than 30th.
7. Kurt Busch (-47)
by: Jessica Tow
After his solid second-place finish at Kansas last weekend, Kurt Busch finds himself seventh in the points standings heading into Charlotte. In 26 career starts at the 1.5-mile track, the eldest Busch brother has one win, six top fives, and seven top 10s. In addition, he has gone on to lead a total of 503 laps.
When asked about his chances at Charlotte, Busch said, "Charlotte is going to be tougher than most people think even though we ran really well there in the Sprint All-Star Race and the 600. I won those two races in 2010 and went back in October and ran 30th. We didn't advance with our setup from the month of May to October. So it's going to be more of ‘what have you done lately."
He goes on to add: "Charlotte is the third of five 1.5-mile races in the Chase and we’re off to a pretty good start. This is all encouraging and I really want to give this team a victory. Hopefully we’ll cash in on Saturday night in our Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet.”
Kurt finished third in the Coca-Cola 600 event that took place at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Since then he has not finished lower than sixth in the four events that have taken place on the 1.5-mile cookie cutter tracks. With a 47-point deficit between himself and standings leader Matt Kenseth, Busch should not be counted out just yet. Look for Kurt and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team to be contending for the win this Saturday night under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-54)
by: Carol D’Agostino
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s eighth-place finish at Kansas enabled him to move up two spots in the standings. That’s the good news and pretty remarkable considering the 15-caution/action-packed restarts. Unfortunately our next stop in the Chase is Charlotte Motor Speedway, a “cookie-cutter” track where consistency in performance has been an issue for the No. 88 team.
Earnhardt Jr. has never won at this track. In fact in the last three years his average finish has only been 20th. Overall his track record in 27 attempts has been 11 top 10s, five top fives and one pole.
Earnhart Jr. is surrounded in the standings by seventh-place Kurt Busch and ninth-place Clint Bowyer, which will force the No. 88 team to up the ante in performance if they hope to stay in the top 10 in the standings. Bowyer won this race last year, but Kurt Busch only has a slightly better record at Charlotte.
If Earnhardt Jr. can earn a respectable finish and gain some bonus points by leading laps, he could keep from dropping below the top 10.
Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his 500th Sprint Cup start this weekend.
9. Clint Bowyer (-55)
by: Katy Lindamood
The second-place curse lives on. Clint Bowyer is proof of that. After finishing second to Brad Keselowski in 2012, Bowyer has had a less than remarkable season behind the wheel of his No. 15 Camry.
Luck may be on his side this weekend. He’s the defending race winner of the Bank of America 500 and will start Saturday night’s race from the 14th position.
In 15 starts Bowyer has one win, two top fives and five top 10s at CMS. He will be sporting pink this weekend for Breast Cancer Awareness month.
10. Joey Logano (-59)
by: Lacy Keyser
Coming off a top-10 finish last weekend, Joey Logano looks to build momentum for the final six races of the season.
So far this year at Charlotte, Logano finished second in the All-Star Race and finished fifth in the Coke 600. Strong finishes make Logano a threat for the win this weekend.
The driver of the No. 22 has three top fives and six top 10s at Charlotte. He has a 9.6 average finish, seventh best running position (14.3). He also has the eighth-best driver rating of 88.9.
Logano may have the potential to win this weekend, but I do feel his Chase chances are done. Though, with Talladega looming, I wouldn't count him out just yet. Anything can happen.
Be sure to keep your eyes on the yellow No. 22 Hertz Ford this weekend.
11. Carl Edwards (-60)
by: Stephanie Stuart
After losing the Sprint Cup championship to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker in 2011, Carl Edwards didn't expect to be in 11th place this year as the Chase hits halfway in NASCAR's backyard. Coming into Charlotte, Edwards needs to make up 60 points to take the lead from former teammate Matt Kenseth.
A fifth-place finish last weekend didn't do much for Edwards' points standings. He came out of Kansas in the same place he started. A string of sub-par finishes and other misfortunes over the course of the Chase so far haven't helped his case. Charlotte marks the halfway point of the Chase, and Edwards knows he needs a strong run if he is going to make a run at the title.
Edwards has made 18 starts at Charlotte, and averages a finish of 11.9. While he hasn't won there yet, he does have five top fives and 10 top 10s. He also is ranked seventh-best at the track among active drivers.
Edwards knows now is the time for the 99 team to shine if they have any title hopes.
"Charlotte has been hot or cold for us," he said earlier this week. "We hope to build on our top five at Kansas and gain more points at Charlotte. We need great runs to stay in the hunt for the championship. It's fast and will require great strategy. Jimmy (Fennig) and my crew have been amazing, so I'll lean on them."
It should be an exciting weekend as NASCAR races in its hometown. Look for Edwards to try to stay toward the front of the pack all night. He knows that's where he needs to be if he is going to have a say in who holds the title of Sprint Cup champion this year.
12. Ryan Newman (-73)
by: Katy Lindamood
Extenuating circumstances put both Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon in the Chase. While Gordon has flourished moving up to fourth, Newman has been spinning his wheels. After four of six races, Newman sits 12th in the standings, 73 markers behind and quickly falling out of contention.
Newman is looking forward to this weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Earlier in the week, during a teleconference, Newman said, “Well, I hope we can just build off of where we were in the Coca-Cola 600. I think we ended up sixth if I remember right in the Coke 600, fifth or sixth or something like that, but we had a good car, and were in position at the end. I've been in position several times at the Coke 600 and actually I think about five years ago led everything - led coming to the white and then crashed in Turn 1. I've been close at Charlotte. It's one of my favorite racetracks.”
Charlotte may be a favorite, but’s it’s definitely not Newman’s strongest track. In 25 starts, Newman has five DNFs and an average finish of 19.6. He’s earned nine top-10 finishes at NASCAR’s home track, including a sixth in May.
Newman will part ways with this team at the conclusion of the season, so this would be the perfect opportunity for the team to rally down the final stretch.
13. Kasey Kahne (-83)
by: Lacy Keyser
Kasey Kahne’s luck has been awful when it comes to the Chase. After four races he sits 13th in the standings, 83 points behind the lead. Kahne's chances of winning the title are nearly impossible at this point, so the only thing he can do now is go for the win and get as many victories as possible.
Kahne has had huge success at Charlotte. He has four wins, eight top fives and 11 top 10s. He has the third-best driver rating, 100.5, as well as the third best average running position of 11.8.
With four wins and great stats when it comes to Charlotte, I would keep my eyes on Kahne. He very well could steal that win.