Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Coca-Cola 600 & Indianapolis 500 Preview

One of NASCAR's crown jewel races will be this Sunday, when the Sprint Cup Series will be at Lowe's Motor Speedway just north of Charlotte, N.C. for the Coca-Cola 600. A Memorial Day tradition, the race formerly known as the World 600 remains one of NASCAR's proudest and longest-standing races.

One could argue the race is outranked in importance only by the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500. That's how big a deal the Coca-Cola 600 is. The race has even surpassed the Indianapolis 500 -- which is also run the Sunday before Memorial Day -- with higher TV ratings in six of the last eight years.

At this point, the only way Indy can surpass Charlotte on Sunday is if Danica Patrick wins "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

Kasey Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 a year ago, taking the lead with two laps left when Tony Stewart lost a tire. Kahne won both the 600 and the Sprint All-Star Race last year, a feat Stewart will look to duplicate this year after he won the All-Star Race last Saturday. It was Stewart's first win as an owner-driver, and even though it was a non-points event, seeing Stewart in Victory Lane was inevitable.

It's possible that with that first win out of the way, Stewart could rattle off a few more, especially since we're heading to the time of year where Stewart really excels. The temperature rises, Stewart starts winning races.

Don't ignore Smoke on Sunday night.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson also have to be considered favorites. Gordon was in prime position to win his fourth All-Star Race before he wrecked in the final 10-lap segment, while Johnson has five wins at the track that bears his sponsor's name -- and he had the dominant car in the early stages of the All-Star Race.

Kyle Busch also has to be considered a threat, simply because he's Kyle Busch. Don't ignore brother Kurt, though; he finished a solid third in the All-Star Race, and Kurt is running the same car he won with in Atlanta on Sunday. The new Dodge engine has done wonders for that Penske Racing team, and it wouldn't surprise me to see "the other Busch" holding the trophy at the end of the night.

Also look for Mark Martin. He's loving life following two wins in 11 starts -- his first multi-win season since 1999. He's got momentum on his side, and Martin has said Lowe's is his favorite track. Martin won this race in 2002.

One thing to watch for in this race ... with the green flag dropping at roughly 5:30 p.m., track conditions at the start will be drastically different from those once the sun sets. Lowe's is one of the most temperature-sensitive tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, and chances are the dominant car early in the race won't be dominant late -- unless his crew can keep up with the changes and adjust the car accordingly.

Just don't be surprised if the winner Sunday night is someone who wasn't a factor when the sun was still out. I'm going to pick Stewart, because of how strong he's run this season (five Top-5s in six races), and he has the momentum of last week's win.

Now, back to Indy ...

Helio Castroneves, still loving life after being acquitted of tax evasion charges, won the pole for the 93rd Indianapolis 500. Once the biggest event in all of motorsports, this race -- like the IndyCar Series -- has fallen on hard times since the big open-wheel split in 1996. Still, there's something magical about seeing 33 IndyCars fly toward the brick start-finish line, with rows of fans surrounding them on both sides.

Castroneves' teammate Ryan Briscoe will start second, while Dario Franchitti, who's already won in his IndyCar return, will start third. Scott Dixon, who will start fifth, won last year's race and should be a factor again after winning his first race of the season at Kansas last month.

Marco Andretti, who lost this race in 2006 to Sam Hornish Jr., will start eighth. Danica Patrick will start 10th, though many think she has as good a shot as ever to win this race. If Patrick takes the traditional sip of milk, it will probably be the biggest story the IRL has ever seen. It will also be the first time since the early 1990s that open-wheel racing trumps NASCAR in the national headlines.

For those of you looking for a NASCAR connection -- and they're hard to come by, since drivers can't complete the double of running in Indy and Charlotte anymore -- John Andretti made the race driving a car owned by Richard Petty. Andretti will start 28th in the 33-car field, and while no one expects him to be a factor in the race, it's a nice bit of crossover between the two motorsports leagues.

Frankly, I wish we could see more of it.

Do I think Patrick will win the race? She can -- she finished fourth here as a rookie and has two other Top-10 finishes -- but I don't think she will. The Penske and Ganassi cars have shown too much speed over the past month, and I don't think anyone from Andretti-Green Racing can chase them down.

Look for Castroneves to take his third Indy 500 and complete a popular story of loss and redemption. From almost going to jail to Victory Lane at one of motorsports' most revered tracks -- could anything be more special?

Here's to a great day of racing, no matter which series you prefer.

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