NASCAR’s longest race is a unique challenge in an iconic Charlotte venue

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 29: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

NASCAR celebrates Memorial Day weekend with its longest race. The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a 400-lap crown jewel in the heart of NASCAR country.

Racing at the 1.5-mile track stretches deep into the night. Though it might not be the same attrition test of machines it once was, the historic race, dating back to 1960, pushes the drivers and teams. Last year, 17 of the 37 drivers entered failed to finish. Uniquely, the race features a fourth stage, something that Ross Chastain says can catch drivers out.

“It’s so easy to think this is just another race weekend but you have to always have in your mind that there is a fourth stage and you still want to be as focused in that stage as you were in the first,” Chastain said. “It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race. I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

“For me, hydration this week is going to be really important,” Ryan Preece added. “Because of how long the race is, the hydration preparation has already started. We need to make sure we’re good to go way before that green flag drops so we’re in good shape to make it all the way to the end.”

However, though NASCAR’s best see the race as a unique physical test, to Christopher Bell it’s moreso an opportunity.

“There are four stages, so there’s an opportunity to score more points, more so than a normal weekend,” Bell said. As for the endurance element: “The race is 400 laps and we run 400 laps at multiple tracks. We don’t treat it any differently.”

Either way, the race is a crown jewel in the NASCAR schedule, and one every driver wants to win. Martin Truex, Jr. has won already. After finally breaking a long winless streak at Dover, he’s eager to get back to victory lane, especially when he knows how special this one is.

“It’s a big deal, it’s not like winning a normal race,” he said. “Anytime you get to do those things it’s really special and you definitely savor the moment.”

But if Truex wants to win, he’ll have to beat out defending winner Denny Hamlin, who expects to be fast.

“I feel like our cars have definitely gotten better on the mile-and-a-half tracks,” said Hamlin. “Obviously, we did win the last mile-and-a-half at Kansas, so I’m optimistic going into this weekend.”

Still, it’s the Hendrick Motorsports drivers who have been the force to reckon with so far this season. William Byron and Kyle Larson have already won five of the first thirteen races this season. Those two are also the sport’s most recent winners, with Byron winning the last points race at Darlington and Larson winning the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro.

“We know we will have to beat the Hendrick guys if we want to have a shot,” Hamlin acknowledged, “but I feel like we’ve been trending in the right direction on these types of tracks. We have as good a chance as anyone. We just have to execute throughout the race and be there at the end.”

The final Hendrick driver will also be returning, as Alex Bowman has been cleared to return, with a waiver to retain Playoff eligibility. He missed three races after sustaining a spinal compression fracture in a sprint car race. Sub driver Josh Berry, who impressed when he subbed for both Bowman and Chase Elliott, who was out for an injury earlier in the season, is out.

Truex also highlighted NASCAR’s efforts to honor fallen soldiers on the evening before Memorial Day, which includes featuring the name of a fallen soldier on the windshields, as well as a moment of silence during the halfway break.

“It’s obviously special to honor a fallen service member on all of our windshields, but also just to meet the family members who get to come to the track,” Truex said. “And just to see their excitement and their appreciation for what NASCAR does to put that on and honor the family members.”

“It makes them feel very special, and for us it’s just a huge honor. To do the break during the race is special, too. It’s just part of the whole day to honor those who have made so many sacrifices for our country, and to have the halfway break is very moving.”

Xfinity Series features a star-studded Cup Series cast at Charlotte

Kyle Busch is the all-time Xfinity Series win leader, but didn’t race at all in the series last season. Now having left Toyota for Chevrolet, he’ll be making his third start this season in the No. 10 car for Kaulig Racing in Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

But he’ll have to compete with young prodigy Ty Gibbs, who took up the place at Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s seen limited success in the Cup Series so far, with just three top ten finishes. It’s a different story in the Xfinity Series, though, where he’s the defending champion with seven wins last year.

Still, Busch’s Xfinity Series record at Charlotte of 9 victories, 19 top fives and 22 top 10s in 26 starts will be tough to beat.

For the Xfinity Series regulars hoping to steal a win from the headliners, seat time is actually on the Cup drivers’ side. The Xfinity Series has only raced once this month, as a companion series to Cup at Darlington. Points leader John Hunter Nemechek acknowledged that it’s a concern.

“It has been a little strange only having one race so far this month,” he said, “but we’ve been meeting, and in the sim trying to stay sharp and be ready for this stretch of races that we’re about to hit this summer. Hopefully, we can get this stretch off to a good start on Saturday.”

Still, “Charlotte is always a fun weekend, being our home track and being able to have friends and family come out. “I’m really excited about the race.”

One Xfinity regular who has gotten the seat time is Josh Berry, who’s been subbing for Alex Bowman in the Cup Series. He’s hoping to bring JR Motorsports its first win of the year after winning last year’s Charlotte race by beating teammate Justin Allgaier.

“Winning last year was incredible after that duel with Justin, and I was really happy to earn JRM’s first win at Charlotte,” Berry said. “Our intermediate program has been on the upswing for the past couple of years, and we are coming in here confident that the Tire Pros Chevrolet will be at the front.”

“I’m happy with the consistency, but we really need to get a win, and this is the place and weekend to do it.”

To Berry’s point, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer said that the track is a great place to race and a driver favorite.

“I think the racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is just getting better and better, mostly because it’s starting to age,” Custer said. “It’s getting to that point where the tires are starting to wear and you’re having to move around the track a lot, especially during the daytime. You’re slipping and sliding all around and you’re running against the wall.”

“Charlotte can be a lot of fun for a driver, but it can also bite you in some instances. I think it’s just becoming one of the better mile-and-a-half racetracks just because it’s aging.”

Triple Truck Challenge offers huge incentive in the Truck Series at Charlotte

A $50,000 bonus is a sweet incentive to win Friday night’s North Carolina Education Lottery 200 (8:30 p.m. on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Pair that with the chance to make it $150,000 or even $500,000 by winning the next two, or all three, Triple Truck Challenge races and the incentive gets massive.

The next chances to win are at World Wild Technology Raceway on June 3 and Nashville Superspeedway on June 23.

And to make sure the winner takes it, no Cup or Xfinity series drivers will be allowed to moonlight in those three races.

But winning a Truck Series race at Charlotte is easier said than done. Grant Enfinger would know, having finished second to Cup Series driver Ross Chastain in this race last year.

“In order to win the race, you’ve got to be able to run well on the bottom of the track as well as up on the top,” Enfinger said. “I feel like Charlotte is probably one of the trickiest tracks on the schedule in terms of how much the weather conditions from the daytime practice to the nighttime race change the handling characteristics for us.”

“It’s a really fun place when you’re dialed in, but it is easy to miss the setup there and have a long night. We’re taking the same truck that we won Kansas with, so hopefully we can go out there and contend for another win with it on Friday night.”

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 29: A general view of pit road during the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Coca-Cola 600
The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, May 28
The Time: 6 p.m. ET
The Purse: $9,421,275
TV: FOX, 5:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 600 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 100),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 200), Stage 3 (Ends on Lap 300), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Alsco Uniforms 300
The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, May 27
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,317,391
TV: FS1, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Next Race: North Carolina Education Lottery 200
The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
The Date: Friday, May 27
The Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $767,542
TV: FS1, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 201 miles (134 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 134)

Owen Johnson