NASCAR heads to Charlotte for a grueling endurance race, especially for Kyle Larson

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 29: Ty Gibbs, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, Chris Buescher, driver of the #17 Fastenal Ford, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2023 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Coca-Cola 600 Charlotte Motor Speedway is always a test of man and machine, but one driver will be tested even more this year. Kyle Larson is planning, so long as forecasted rain doesn’t upset his plans, to run the Indy 500 first on Sunday then fly to Charlotte for 600 more miles.

It’s the first attempt at ‘The Double’ since Kurt Busch in 2014. Busch had a strong run in the 500 but failed to finish the 600. It’s Tony Stewart with the best run at it, finishing 6th at Indy and 3rd at Charlotte in 2001 – that’s actually the only time a driver has even finished both races.

But while Larson’s impressive feat has grabbed the headlines, the rest of the field is racing as usual – airing at 6 p.m. Sunday on FOX, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, and there are some unresolved conflicts brewing.

Odds via BetMGM
+475 – Kyle Larson
+575 – Denny Hamlin
+850 – Tyler Reddick
+900 – Ryan Blaney
+950 – William Byron
+1000 – Martin Truex
+1100 – Chase Elliott
+1100 – Brad Keselowski
+1100 – Chris Buescher
+1300 – Christopher Bell

Two weeks ago, Chris Buescher and Tyler Reddick were battling for the win at Darlington when Reddick threw an ambitious slide job that sent both drivers into the wall and out of the race as a result, handing the win to Buescher’s teammate Brad Keselowski. While it may have been a triumphant weekend for his boss, Buescher was unhappy and confronted Reddick post-race.

Buescher may have held himself back from fighting, but Ricky Stenhouse was less restrained. After crowding Kyle Busch in the opening laps of last week’s All-Star Race, an unhappy Busch pushed him through the corner and hooked him into the wall, taking Stenhouse out of the race. With no tunnel allowing him to exit while the race was going on, Stenhouse stewed next to Busch’s hauler and threw a punch at the driver of the No. 8 as he walked back.

As a result, NASCAR suspended two crew members involved in the fight for multiple races and suspended Stenhouse’s father, who also attacked Busch, indefinitely, while giving Stenhouse himself a $75,000 penalty.

The fine wasn’t enough to satisfy Busch’s team owner Richard Childress: “If it had just been a straight up fight, but it was an ambush, well-coordinated.” Childress promised CupScene editor-in-chief Greg Engle that he’ll fight himself if Stenhouse retaliates on the track as he promised to do.

Ford on the rise

With all that brewing under the surface, the story on the track has been a resurgence for Ford. After one of the longest winless streaks in the Cup Series in the brand’s history, Ford finally broke through with Keselowski’s win at Darlington. And, though it may not have conferred any points or a Playoff berth, Ford driver Joey Logano did collect a million-dollar check by winning the All-Star Race.

And it’s a Ford who’s the defending winner at the Coke 600. Ryan Blaney scored his first win of the 2023 season at this race, en route to a championship-winning run. It was made even more special that his Team Penske teammate Joseph Newgarden was able to win for the team’s IndyCar program in the Indy 500 earlier that day.

“It was nice to put that race together,” Blaney said of last year. “That’s obviously a long night and it was a long weekend running on Monday. It’s just cool that we were able to put a whole race together and could snap that streak of not winning for a while and then to do it – Joseph won the Indy 500 the day before that on Sunday, so it was nice to kind of finish that off.

“We’re always watching that race and if one of those guys wins, we kind of know we’ve got a shot to do it and you don’t get that shot very often, so it was nice for it to all come together. And then being from just down the road was super cool with my family there and a bunch of buddies, so it would be nice to do it again. That’s something I’ll never forget,” Blaney concluded.

A long way for a rookie

A big win, for a Ford driver or otherwise, could start a championship campaign, or even to cement a new driver’s face into the history books. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Josh Berry might be an experienced driver, but this is his first full season in the Cup Series.

He’s steadily improved so far this season, capped off with a third at Darlington that came on pure speed with no late-race cautions to boost his finishing position, and is looking to break through for a win with the help of crew chief Rodney Childers at his first Coke 600.

“I’m excited. I think to experience that for the first time is going to be a lot of fun,” Berry said. “It’s going to be a challenge, though, running 600 miles.

“I haven’t driven the Next Gen at Charlotte, so that will be a new experience for me, but I have a win in the Xfinity Series there so I’m excited to get there and see it. It’s going to be a long night. We’re going to have to grind it out. The track is going to change a lot from when the race starts to when it finishes, but Rodney and this 4 team have had some solid runs there, so hopefully we can keep that up.”

Climbing the mountain

Another driver looking to improve on a great run is Justin Haley, who scored Rick Ware Racing’s first-ever top ten on a non-superspeedway track at Darlington – and, again, that was on pure pace with no late cautions. Haley might not be a rookie himself, but it’s his first year with the new team and he has something to prove after failing to deliver for Kaulig Racing the past several years.

“I’ve said time and time again why I made the decision. The picture might start to be more clear now to the general public than it was when I first made the decision. I went off internal knowledge I had at the time,” Haley said of his choice to move to RWR.

“I think the mountain we’re climbing was probably a little bigger than I anticipated, but the Cup Series is harder at this moment than it’s ever been. I’m not trying to take away from the past and guys who came before us, but there’s not really a slow car out there anymore,” he explained.

“It’s pretty tough, so we’re just continuing to improve each and every week and focus on ourselves. We’ve cleaned up a lot of the issues we had at the start of the year. We’re trying to get our stuff faster and get the crew working more efficiently. Besides some pit-road stuff we need to work on, I feel like we’re doing well. We just go out each week and do the best we can.”

Something special

More than anything, though, a Coke 600 win is something special for any NASCAR driver, whether a first-time winner or a seasoned veteran. Fittingly for Memorial Day weekend, with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indy 500 before it, the crown-jewel race is a spectacle for fan and driver alike.

Past winner Martin Truex explained that to win the race is an occasion unlike any other.

“When you win the 600, you get to go upstairs in the Speedway Club and get the jacket – you get a ring and a jacket – it’s a big deal, it’s not like winning a normal race. Any time you get to do those things, it’s really special and you definitely savor the moment,” he said.

Truex was able to win in dominating fashion, leading the most laps ever in the 600 – which was also, by virtue of the race’s length, the most distance ever led in a NASCAR race – and showing his speed.

“For me, leading 492 miles or whatever back in 2016, it was a great trip up there after. The most laps and miles led in a NASCAR race, it was an incredible deal to be able to do that,” Truex acknowledged.

But it’s not an easy race to win.

“My favorite thing about the Coke 600 is how much the track changes and how long the race is. It’s such a big challenge to get prepared for and get through the whole race,” Truex explained.

It falls to the drivers to embrace the challenge if they want that incredibly special feeling of victory.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 29: Austin Hill, driver of the #21 Alsco Chevrolet, and Riley Herbst, driver of the #98 Monster Energy Ford, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2023 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by David Jensen/Getty Images)

Defending champion Cole Custer hopes for an Xfinity Series win at Charlotte

Last year’s Xfinity Series champion Cole Custer hasn’t won yet this year, which might look like an unsuccessful start. However, at this point in the season, he has 50% more top-five finishes than he did at this point last season (six to four), and he hadn’t yet won at this point last year.

Custer thinks that Charlotte could be the spot to turn things around and get that win, however. The Bet MGM 300, airing at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday on FOX, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, will be a challenge, but it’s one that the driver embraces.

“I mean, it’s just like this season, we just need that little bit more to find victory lane,” Custer said. “We just haven’t put together a perfect race, which needs to happen if we want to get there. I feel like Charlotte has been similar in my career. Our cars have been fast, but stuff happens during the race and I feel like we just can’t recover.

“I’m excited to get there this weekend, though, with the momentum we’ve been having in the series right now. Charlotte Motor Speedway is getting better and better as the years go on, too, mostly because it’s starting to age. It’s getting to that point where the tires are starting to wear more, and you’re having to move around the track a lot to find speed. You’re slipping and sliding all around.

“Charlotte can be a lot of fun for a driver, but it can also bite you if you aren’t careful. In my opinion, it’s becoming one of the better mile-and-a-half racetracks on the NASCAR circuit.”

Custer will have to get around some strong competition, however. Cup Series regulars Kyle Busch and Ty Gibbs have both won at Charlotte in the Xfinity Series (in fact, Busch has won nine times), and are on the entry list for Saturday.

Additionally, Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier has a win at the track, the only series regular who does. Allgaier is the defending winner of this race, scoring that win last season. Allgaier’s also the series’ defending race winner, having gone to victory lane for the first time this season at Darlington. He wants to get back.

“We have had a lot of speed here the last couple of years and were fortunate enough to get to Victory Lane here last year,” Allgaier said. “So hopefully we can have that same speed once again this weekend and keep this momentum going.”

Cup regulars Chase Elliott and Noah Gragson will both be competing in the Xfinity Series field to gain some practice at the track before their series’ grueling 600-miler, and neither are strangers to winning in the Xfinity Series.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 26: Corey Heim, driver of the #11 Rootly Toyota, and Carson Hocevar, driver of the #42 Worldwide Express Chevrolet, lead the field to a restart during the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2023 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by David Jensen/Getty Images)

The Triple Truck Challenge kicks off at Charlotte

There’s an extra incentive in the Craftsman Truck Series on Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The North Carolina Education Lottery 200, airing at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio is the first race of the three-race Triple Truck Challenge.

That means the winner will automatically get a $50,000 bonus. The incentive to win the first race of the Challenge especially is even higher since a driver who wins two events gets $150,000 total and a driver who wins all three scores $50,000.

The series might not need the extra incentive, though, as there’s a battle for supremacy at the front. With his win at North Wilkesboro, Corey Heim has now won three races this season, more than Christian Eckes who’s won two. Rajah Caruth and Nick Sanchez are the only other series-regular winners, with the other races won by Cup Series moonlighters.

That’s some incentive for any driver hoping to challenge Heim. But that four-winner total also means that, with six races to, six spots remain open in the 10-driver Playoff field. That means a win is a guaranteed ticket into the postseason for any driver, so intensity will be up at Charlotte anyway.

Owen Johnson