What matters in tonight’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Charlotte and how will teams reckon with minimal tire wear across 600 miles? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on FOX).
Is 600 miles too long for Kyle Larson?
Kyle Larson has never won a 500-mile race, a worthwhile topic when discussing him as the odds-on favorite for today’s 600-mile race. It’s a notion of which Larson is fully aware.
“My friends texted me,” Larson said. “We’re in a group chat, and they’re like, ‘Oh that’s cool, you’re the odds-on favorite to win!’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s 600 miles. I’m more of a 380-mile guy.’”
His self-deprecation is a nice touch, but Larson realizes long races are a riddle he’s yet to solve. He’s led laps and finished well, but hasn’t closed the deal since entering the Cup Series in 2014.
“A lot of times it’s my fault,” Larson said. “But also a lot of times it’s circumstantial, where somebody else has a better pit stop, or I don’t get a good push on a restart as the leader or whatever. And then I run second or third, then I overdrive to try and get back to the lead and I crash or something like that. So, I don’t know.
“I think those wins will come, but they haven’t yet.”
The win could come as soon as tonight. Larson, who starts from the pole, tops the series in Production in Equal Equipment Rating at 550-horsepower tracks while also having the fastest car, based on average median lap rank. Given the difficulty in passing with this specific rules package and the kinds of dominant stretches Larson has demonstrated on 1.5-mile tracks like Atlanta and Kansas this season, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that, if he doesn’t stumble, he’ll finally break the long-race seal with a win in one of NASCAR’s crown-jewel events.
The mental durability of a 600-mile race, Larson insists, isn’t a factor. If anything, the changing track conditions in the shift from day to night, something with which he’s struggled, prompts a heightened focus.
“I feel like I focus even more during this race to try and figure out what I need when it does go from daytime to night,” Larson said. “I’ve always been really good here in the sun. Then it goes to nighttime. This place, for whatever reason, I don’t have a good feel for. So if anything, I feel like I focus and try harder here than I do in other places.”
Besides the race length, the track itself, namely the lack of tire wear it elicits, offers the field an opportunity to rein in a potentially dominant Larson.
— Positive Regression (@PosRegPod) May 29, 2021
All tire strategies are viable with minimal degradation
Cup Series teams are utilizing the same Goodyear tire combination that saw, at most, a 1-second lap-time degradation deep into runs last year. The minimal falloff assisted in Brad Keselowski’s Coca-Cola 600 win — thanks to a decision to eschew pitting in advance of the overtime restart — and formed Greg Ives’ call for just two tires following a rain delay, a choice that jumped Alex Bowman from 13th to first in the running order. From there, Bowman earned two stage wins and tallied the fourth-most points despite finishing 19th.
Under green-flag conditions, long-pitting — stopping beyond the most populated few laps of pit window — is a more sturdy strategy than usual, a bid by teams for a caution flag or stage points with less risk of the plan disassembling. There won’t be an insurmountable lap time difference between the teams that short-pit Charlotte’s green-flag windows and those that don’t.
Under yellow, two tires or no stop at all is possible, given the cadence of caution flags toward the ends of stages (the 600-mile contest contains three) or the race itself. Ives believes we’ll see teams attempt to emulate what he did in last year’s race but stresses it’s a design that requires clean air, leading to a quick getaway, to work as intended.
“I would say you may look at some calls that are similar to that,” Ives told NBC Sports. “Sometimes it’s all about positioning, right? I was fortunate enough to get the front row each time we did that and it made it work for us. But you saw a couple of guys also last year stay out and fall back to 17th, 18th with fast cars.
“So, it’s about playing the right strategy when we need to and not putting ourselves behind by being too cute.”
The choose rule’s impact on pit road “gambles”
The choose rule hadn’t been conceived when last year’s Coca-Cola 600 rewarded those who brushed aside conventional four-tire stops. Had teams been given the ability to pick their restarts, Ives reckons Bowman, third in the running order among drivers who didn’t pit prior to the final restart, would’ve been in much better contention for a finish commensurate with his race-long performance.
“At the end of the 600, we stayed out and — we had a fast car all night — we thought we had the ability to win that race,” Ives said. “We went down into Turn 1 and got super tight and it ended up pointing it (toward the outside of the turn). If we had the ability to potentially choose the outside there, maybe it would’ve worked out better for us.”
Instead of choosing, Bowman was slotted into the third-place spot on the inside of the second row, a location in which its occupants had a 56.67% chance of defending at Charlotte over the last two years, less favorable than the fourth-place spot to its outside. He was lined directly behind Keselowski instead of then-Hendrick stablemate Jimmie Johnson, Ives’ ideal scenario:
“We would’ve lined up right behind Jimmie, we would’ve pushed Jimmie potentially,” Ives said. “The 12 car (Ryan Blaney) would’ve chosen the bottom and pushed (Keselowski) and I don’t feel like we get tight. It helps when you have the ability to choose.”
Keselowski realizes the choose rule, and the likelihood of faster cars or cars with fresher tires being placed in more advantageous restart spots, could’ve thrown him a much different challenge than what he ultimately received.
“Being able to pick your lane with new tires give you options to be where you want to be,” Keselowski said. “I can’t say specifically how it would’ve played out because you don’t know what everybody would have done, but I suspect it would’ve been definitely harder to defend the lead or the position I was in.”
Given each team’s ability to select their own launching points on restarts, the decision between four tires, two tires or no stop becomes more pronounced — in both directions — giving them more control in how their “gambles” materialize.