NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

What Are The Crown Jewels?

The debate is getting brought up because we’ve reached what should be the second crown jewel of the NASCAR schedule. We know the Daytona 500 is one of them. We know the Brickyard 400 used to be but due to the move to the road course, probably falls off the list.

So, what rounds out the crown jewels on the schedule since NASCAR overhauled for the start of this season? Is it four races or does it shrink to three? I mean, who said you have to have four crown jewels?

The Coca-Cola 600 is surely in consideration. So is the Southern 500. I think you have to have each on this list. So, do we stop there or add a fourth again?

Is the fourth Bristol dirt? Is it the Bristol night race? Is it one of the two Talladega races? That’s all up for debate. But, what’s not debatable is the ‘600. The thing is, did the ‘600 now the second biggest race of the season?

Will There Be More Dominance On Sunday?

The Coca-Cola 600 may be the longest race of the season, but the odds are Sunday’s race will see someone dominate it too. That’s because the ‘600 has seen a lot of dominance lately. Martin Truex Jr. led 392 of 400 laps in his 2016 win. Kyle Busch followed that up with leading 377 of 400 laps in 2018 only for Truex to lead 116 laps in his win in 2019. Over the last 11 Charlotte oval races, the eventual race winner led at least 91 laps in eight of them with six of those eight leading at least 115 laps.

I mean, you also have to just look at how this season has gone too. We’ve had dominating performances in almost every race. It started in Daytona with Denny Hamlin leading 98 of 200 laps in the ‘500. Chase Elliott led 46 of 70 laps a week later on the DIS road course. William Byron led 102 of 267 laps in Homestead. Kyle Larson led 103 of 267 in Las Vegas. Joey Logano led 143 of 312 in Phoenix. Larson, led 269 of 325 in Atlanta, followed by Truex leading 126 of 253 in Bristol, Hamlin 276 of 500 in Martinsville, Hamlin 207 of 400 in Richmond, Hamlin 43 of 191 in Talladega, Larson 132 of 267 in Kansas, Truex Jr. 248 of 293 in Darlington and Larson 263 of 400 in Dover.

Those are high percentages. That’s 49%, 66%, 38%, 39%, 46%, 83%, 50%, 55%, 52%, 23%, 49%, 85% and 66% of races run this year being led by a single driver. What’s odd is, only three times has that said driver actually won the race itself.

I mean in Martinsville, Ryan Blaney also led 153 laps that race to go along with Hamlin’s 276 and neither won. In Richmond, Truex led 107 laps and he nor Hamlin won either. Only Byron (Homestead), Larson (Vegas) and Truex Jr. (Darlington) led the most laps and the race too.

I can see someone dominating this race this weekend.

Are The Toyota’s The Ones To Beat?

The Toyota’s have bar none been the best at Charlotte in recent years. They’ve won four of the last six Coke 600’s and three of the last five on the oval overall. The question is, was 2020 the start of their fall on the 1.5-mile North Carolina race track?

A Ford in Brad Keselowski won the ‘600 last May while Chevrolet in Chase Elliott won the second oval race a few days later. The Toyota’s paled in comparison last year to the years past.

So far this season, they’ve been solid but not dominant on 550 tracks too.

Denny Hamlin has a top five in half of the four races run on 550 tracks. He’s also had four top fives in his last six Charlotte oval starts too. Kyle Busch has 4 top 10’s and a a trio of top fives, including a win in four 550 races in 2021 to go along with five top six results in his last seven Charlotte oval tries. Martin Truex Jr. has similar stats at Busch on 550’s and has been the most dominant for the Toyota grouping at Charlotte lately too.

The thing is, they were 4-6-29 in the ‘600 with all 87 combined laps led by Truex Jr. and 2-9-29 in the second race.

Are they still the ones to beat?

Is Byron A Championship Contender?

William Byron was expected to get off to a slower start than this for the 2021 season. We once again have had minimal practice/qualifying on race weekends with most of the races being show up and race what you brought. We saw how last year played out for drivers working with a new crew chief for this. They struggled to get up to speed.

Well, Byron had a new crew chief this year in Rudy Fugle. They worked together in the past in the Truck Series but never in Cup. How big would the learning curve be?

It’s actually not been tough at all for them. Byron, sits second in points entering this weekend as he’s already won a race this season in Homestead. In fact, since we left Daytona in February, Bryon has scored a top 11 in every race run. Does that continue this weekend in his home race of the Coca-Cola 600?

Byron, was ninth in this race in 2019 and has been stout with the 550 horsepower package this season. That has to lead us to wonder if he’s a legitimate championship contender. I mean, he’s up front each week and is among the best every race. Imagine is they keep getting faster and faster.

Are Kyle Busch/Kevin Harvick The Long Run Futures?

We’re not talking a lot about Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick right now. That’s because they’ve combined to win just one race all season. But, could this duo actually be strong favorites come the playoffs?

Heading into last season, both had made the Championship 4 in five of the six years of that formats existence. They both were shut out in 2020. This season, they’ve not looked like their usual past selves.

Busch, has led just 55 laps all season. Harvick, has paced the field for 39 laps himself. That’s far from their usual pace. Despite that, they could be showing soon their will.

We’ve seen this happen over the course of the last several NASCAR seasons. The ones that dominate the year early rarely win the championship in the end.

Last year, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.

The hot start trend doesn’t lead to a championship.

Busch and Harvick haven’t had the pace to dominate the races so far this season, but they’re close. Busch has five top 10’s in his last seven races on the year including seven overall. Harvick, has 10 top 10’s in 14 races during 2021 including eight of those in the top six.

They’re both working on finding more and more speed, so what happens when they do? That’s why I wouldn’t count them out just yet.

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