Leave Their Mark: Five Questions for Charlotte

Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs
It’s Memorial Day weekend, and in NASCAR, that means one thing – the Coca-Cola 600 is upon us.

After an interesting Sprint All-Star Race, we don’t know what to expect on Sunday night. The latest aero adjustments will be put to the test as late day transitions into night. The teams will fight to hoist Charlotte Motor Speedway’s iconic trophy and leave their mark.

However, this weekend isn’t solely about racing and history; it extends beyond the sport’s longest race and those in the driver seats. It’s about those who fought for our country and paid the ultimate price. Their sacrifice doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by those racing this weekend. The various paint schemes honoring the fallen are a sign of respect. They're also a reminder that freedom isn’t free.

That thought, along with these five questions, are on my mind as we prepare to take on 600 miles.

Can we really blame Keselowski for the All-Star mishap? This week, many fans were still confused about what happened last Saturday night. Some of the media members were in the same boat. “Send angry comments Brad Keselowski’s way,” everyone said. When the format was announced, Dale Earnhardt Jr. outed the 2012 Sprint Cup champion as its creator, and now people are blaming him for the Sprint All-Star Race’s convoluted execution. However, this criticism is misdirected. Although there are some elements of the format that need simplifying, Keselowski’s idea has some great points. The way it was presented? Not so much. NASCAR wasn’t prepared for both Matt Kenseth’s “mistake” and Jamie McMurray’s caution near the end of the first segment, and the sanctioning body certainly wasn’t ready when the two incidents occurred together. That is NASCAR’s fault. If McMurray’s caution didn’t happen, nobody would be upset with how the race turned out.

The other part of this deal is the concept – and the lack of interception. Many drivers – most notably Denny Hamlin – were vocal about the format’s flaws after the race. If so many objected to it, why did it go through? The Driver Council was part of the decision-making process and was tasked with communicating an idea. That’s why the Driver Council exists. That’s also why they have a massive group text, to flesh out any details after hours. Either nobody expressed their thoughts, or nobody listened. Whatever the reason, Keselowski shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. NASCAR and fellow drivers are also responsible. Hopefully, they get the kinks ironed out by next year’s All-Star event.

Which XFINITY regular has the best chance of outrunning Hamlin and Logano? Two heavy hitters are entered in Saturday’s XFINITY Series race, but Kyle Busch isn’t one of them. Hamlin will pilot the No. 18 while Joey Logano drives the No. 22 for Team Penske. The void created by Busch could be filled by these two, but this is still an opportunity for series regulars to visit Victory Lane. Erik Jones and Elliott Sadler have punched their Chase tickets, and both can pressure Hamlin and Logano this weekend. However, the one to keep an eye on is Daniel Suarez. There’s no “Sophomore slump” coming out of the No. 19 camp. He’s collected four top fives and eight top 10s in 2016, half of what he accumulated throughout 2015. Everyone knows who he is, as they should. Suarez’s tough and effective driving style puts him in his competitor’s crosshairs. With Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, he’s an even bigger threat. A win has eluded him thus far, but that won’t last for long. He’s the one to watch going into Charlotte this weekend.

Can Larson keep eyes on him? It’s no surprise that everyone is focused on Kyle Larson. After collecting two top fives and three top 10s in 2016, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver dazzled in the Sprint Showdown and All-Star Race. His risky moves left everyone awestruck and impressed. Now, as we head into one of the biggest races of the season, can he build upon those exhibition finishes? It’s definitely not out of the question because the No. 42 team is hot right now, and many are taking notice. This new downforce package suits Larson’s style, and his competitors need to watch out. He should perform very well this weekend and show everyone his All-Star finish wasn’t even close to a fluke.

Will Sunday’s quality of racing be a disappointment or a breath of fresh air? As previously mentioned, Saturday’s racing was good. Like, really good. The adjustments to remove downforce and side-force worked, but will they change Sunday’s action? Not drastically – because the rear toe adjustment won’t be in effect. This will make the cars handle better, a positive for drivers. However, that translates into less action for the fans. When drivers can’t get in sync with their cars, it makes for struggles that add entertainment value. Despite this, the Coca-Cola 600 has potential to be epic. The other changes – mounted truck trailing arms and a set number of cooling fans – will take away downforce and side-force as well, which will influence the racing. I’m very optimistic for Sunday night, yet it won’t exactly be like the All-Star action – and that’s OK.

Who makes history? As one of NASCAR’s biggest races, the Coca-Cola 600 is a huge deal to drivers, crews and fans. It marks the ultimate test of stamina and focus. Teams must manage tires and tempers to have a shot at entering the history books. Who puts their name in it this year? It’s hard to narrow it down to a single choice. Many of these drivers have won a Coca-Cola 600 before, and the others can make a strong run. Despite the surprises 600 miles can hold, a driver who did well in last year’s event stands out – and his equipment is even better this season. Martin Truex, Jr. led 131 laps in the 2015 Coca-Cola 600 but couldn’t seal the deal for him and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. Some say he has bad luck, and others say he has a habit of choking. Either way, it ends with him not being in Victory Lane. This year, he has the ability to be different, because as a Joe Gibbs Racing satellite team, the No. 78 carries some of the best engines in the garage. The extra power puts them on a whole new level. Last season, Truex pulled off a win without the JGR boost. He starts on the pole for Sunday night's 600, and he's my pick to win.

Of course, someone could come out of the shadows and prove me wrong – so I’m choosing a dark horse, and it is Chase Elliott. You probably wouldn’t consider him a “dark horse,” per say, but that’s what I’m calling him. That No. 24 car makes gains every weekend, and his performance in the Sprint Showdown says he is comfortable wheeling it around Charlotte. Many drivers – including his predecessor, Jeff Gordon – can say their first Cup victory was the Coca-Cola 600. If things go his way Sunday night, Elliott may say that as well. I expect both Truex Jr. and Elliott to do well – and have a chance to leave their mark.
Leave Their Mark: Five Questions for Charlotte Leave Their Mark: Five Questions for Charlotte Reviewed by Anonymous on Friday, May 27, 2016 Rating: 5