The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes to Charlotte on Sunday night for the Coca-Cola 600 at a track with a reputation for belonging to one driver, but a recent history that suggests otherwise.
“Charlotte is known as the home of Jimmy Johnson,” TheSportsNotebook’s resident NASCAR consultant Bill Flaherty (who doubles as the writer’s brother) told me. The Charlotte Motor Speedway is sponsored by Lowe’s, the same hardware company that also sponsors Johnson, but JJ also won five of six races there in 2003-05. But just as the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry peaked from 2003-05, so did Johnson’s dominance in Carolina. Over the last five years, Charlotte has continued to host two races per year and we’ve had 10 different winners. Johnson’s one of them, but that’s parity that the NFL would smile upon.
Whether this track belongs to Johnson or not is up for debate, but there’s no debating that the controversial driver is making a hard push in the standings. He’s up to fifth place and within 39 points of leader Greg Biffle. “He should be further back, but that’s another story altogether,” Bill griped, regarding NASCAR’s decision to reverse its 25-point penalty on Johnson early in the year when he and his crew chief did the equivalent of putting their car on steroids. To put the point reversal in perspective, it’s the different between fifth place and ninth place. Johnson is also doing his best driving in recent weeks, winning the last Sprint Cup race two weeks ago at Darlington, and then winning a non-points All-Star race last week. I think it’s safe to say that Biffle and other leaders, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin are quite conscious of Johnson in their rearview mirror right now.
Another driver on the move is Kyle Busch, who’s jumped into ninth place and is (-62) back of Biffle, while a comfortable 14 points ahead of 11th place Clint Bowyer. With the top ten drivers guaranteed a spot in the Race For The Cup this fall and a recalibration of their point totals, that’s a significant benchmark. What’s even more significant is that two wild-card drivers are also chosen and Busch, thanks to some early wins, was well-positioned to be one. If he’s in the Top 10, that wild-card spot can go somewhere else, and Bill has his eye on Brad Keselowski, currently sitting in 12th but with wins at Bristol and Talladega under his belt, as being in prime position.
The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte starts at 5:30 PM ET on Fox. For those that will be inclined to otherwise watch the NBA’s Western Conference Finals opener between San Antonio-Oklahoma City later on (check TheSportsNotebook on Saturday for the preview) or Sunday Night Baseball with Washington-Atlanta in a key NL East game, have the end of the race in Charlotte ready as a place to audible down to during commercials. Of course hard-core NASCAR fans need so such option, as the Cup race is as tight as it’s been since the beginning of the season.