The second half of the regular season kicks off with NASCAR's longest race. When Charlotte Motor Speedway was first conceived, Bruton Smith and Big Bill France wanted a race that would be even bigger than the Indy 500, so what better way was there to create an ultimate test of man and machinery.
The traditional long-format race was 500 miles – until NASCAR started lopping off laps left and right to create a tidier TV package – but Charlotte has persevered. They took that standard race and added the equivalent of a Saturday night late model show.
For a moment when they cross under the flag stand at the 500-mile mark, their bodies must believe relief is on its way, but they still have 17 percent of the race remaining.
The engines also must be designed to go the extra distance and drivers cannot push them past their limit until it's time. Because this race is so long, NASCAR divides it into four stages of 100 mile apiece. Essentially, that means this race is worth more points both in the regular season tally and with its one additional playoff bonus point.
Not all races are created equal and the Coke 600 has long stood head and shoulders above most of the competition. It is one of NASCAR's crown jewels along with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the Daytona 500.
Chase Elliott (+700) was a victim of circumstances last week in the All-Star Race, but it is not in his nature to blame Fate. He saw the crash happening between Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain and rightly chose to take the high road. The right decision doesn't always produce the right outcome. Standing outside the infield care center, he said he should have gone higher.
His tendency to take the blame for everything is one of the things that makes him so strong, but when too many disastrous moments get piled on top of one another, it can also get into his head. A blown tire at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago cost him three laps and snapped a 10-race, top-15 streak just as he was finding his mojo. Before that, he earned back-to-back top-fives for the first time in 2020 with his Dover Motor Speedway win and a fifth at Darlington.
We would be tempted to hedge our bets this week if not for Elliott's Charlotte record. He enters the weekend with five top-fives in his last six races there. One of these was in the Alsco Uniforms 500k. That was a sprint of 312 miles compared to the bigger, badder Coke 600, but he's fared well in the longform also with consecutive runner-up finishes in this race.
Best Bets for a top five
If Kyle Larson (+560) has put all his bad luck in the rearview mirror, this is the stage of the season when he should take off like a rocket. Last year's Coke 600 victory changed the conversation for the better. Until then, players and bettors were still wondering how Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) would perform and how he would fit. He may have still been a little humbled by his suspension from NASCAR. If he had something to prove, he did just that. And the wins kept coming: Larson won the last two unrestricted, similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks races of 2021 and has finished second in his first two efforts this year.
While he can certainly be a difficult driver to handicap, Martin Truex Jr. (+900) can bust out some impressive runs. He was easily one of the top drivers on unrestricted, similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks for a long time and Charlotte was a big part of his mystique with seven top-fives in eight races from 2015 through 2019. He slipped to sixth and then ninth in the 2020 races and fell further last year, but with a solid line of 9/1, he's worth consideration.
Kyle Busch (+675) is the second-favored driver at PointsBet Sportsbook this week for a good reason. Since 2017, he has finished in the top five in every race where he didn't have problems. He won the 2018 Coke 600 and finished third last year, which made him the only non-Hendrick driver to earn a top-five. Both of his races on this track type in 2022 ended in top-fives and there were moments at Kansas when he appeared to be the favorite to win.
Ross Chastain (+1200) has gone from being an appealing dark horse to one of the favorites on a weekly basis for a top-five finish, regardless of the track type. After failing to get a top-10 on the unrestricted 1.5-milers last year, Chastain finished third at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was seventh at Kansas. In four previous starts at Charlotte, he has not cracked the top 20, but that will end this weekend unless he crashes or blows an engine. Better still, his modest results on this track contributes to an opening line of 12/1.
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Best Bets for a top 10
Denny Hamlin (+1100) has a lot of incentive to run well this week. When NASCAR prematurely threw the caution a split second before Ryan Blaney crossed under the checkers, they created a no-win situation in which one of the drivers and all their fans were going to be upset. Hamlin had every right to be angry as NASCAR allowed Blaney to finish the race without his window net securely in place – on the same weekend they upheld a four-race suspension to key crewmembers because of a loose lugnut on the No. 11. This is going to act as huge incentive for a driver who finished third in the 2018 Coke 600.
Blaney (+1200) also has something to prove. There is no doubt that he was going to win the All-Star Race without the final caution, which NASCAR admits was 'prematurely' thrown. And for Blaney, NASCAR did not compound the problem by forcing him to pit. But controversy has a way of galvanizing a driver and Blaney has raced better than he finished on several occasions this year. He has not been particularly strong on unrestricted, similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks, however, so we're placing him outside the top five.
William Byron (+1100) was a favorite for the AdventHealth 400, but he never really contended for the win and was shuffled back to 16th at the checkers. That snapped a three-race streak of results sixth or better on this track type. His results were a little erratic last year, but mostly landed in the top 10 on 1.5-milers. He won at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished fourth in the Coke 600.
Truex and Christopher Bell (+2000) are both seeking their first 2022 win this weekend and both can earn it. That will keep the conversation of whether there will be more than 16 unique winners in the regular season alive – but obviously, it is not the only thing on Bell's mind. He wants to take the pressure off his shoulders and put it on someone else's. Bell enters the weekend with a current streak of four unrestricted, similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track top-10s that includes a fifth in his most recent attempt at Kansas.
Alex Bowman (+1400) should probably be listed a little higher this week, but his ninth-place finish in the AdventHealth 400 gives us a little pause that is not quite offset by his Vegas win. We don't agree with Busch that he backed into that win, but will stipulate he was hit-or-miss on the 1.5-milers last year with four results in nine races outside the top 15 compared to four top-10s. Three of those were top-fives, including a fifth at Charlotte, so he's worth the juice if the squeeze isn't too hard.
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