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After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the greatest Sunday in racing has come together. NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be the cherry on top of a racing trifecta that includes Formula 1’s Grand Prix of Monaco (9 a.m. ET, ESPN) and the Indianapolis 500 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
Both Monaco and Indy come into the weekend surging in popularity. Formula 1 continues to enjoy record ratings inside the U.S.; the Miami Grand Prix last month drew almost 2.6 million viewers, coming within striking distance of NASCAR’s 2.61 million watching the race at Darlington that same weekend. F1 will expand to three events within the country, minimum in 2023 as Netflix’s “Drive To Survive” remains the go-to motorsports-related show on streaming.
Meanwhile, over at Indy, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is raising eyebrows. After a two-year struggle in his move to the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson qualified 12th for his first Indy 500 and has a legitimate shot to win the race. It’s the closest to an Indy-NASCAR crossover the sport has had in recent years after drivers like Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch used to attempt both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day.
That leads us to the third and final event on the day: NASCAR. It’s a series also enjoying a surge in popularity but one that faces a challenge with the Coca-Cola 600, a race that’s been a snoozer in recent years and now looks to be the weakest one within this trifecta. The longest race on the schedule, it used to be a test of endurance but now Charlotte is home to some of the worst aerodynamic issues NASCAR faces on any track.
Three times in the last six years, Charlotte’s 600 winner has led more than 300 laps. Last year’s race featured just one caution outside of stage breaks while only one driver failed to finish due to mechanical problems. At a track that should be a showcase for the sport’s recent success, the 1.5-mile oval has instead become the prime example of how intermediate ovals left the sport stagnant throughout much of the late 2000s and 2010s.
NASCAR’s Next Gen chassis, of course, offers hope the racing at Charlotte can be fixed. Positive examples this year include races at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, fellow intermediates that produced some of the best events in their history in 2022. But there’s also Texas Motor Speedway and the All-Star Race last week, arguably the worst event of the year, and proof the Next Gen isn’t a catch-all.
A crown jewel event like this one brings out the best in the sport’s big teams and it’s no surprise the last six Charlotte races have been won by Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, or Team Penske over the past few seasons. But know occasionally there are upsets that do sneak through: Austin Dillon won the 2017 edition of this race on fuel mileage and Casey Mears did the same in 2007 for his lone Cup win.
Let’s see if NASCAR’s longest race can get its mojo back now that the greatest Sunday in racing is put back together again.
Date: Sunday, May 29
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
2022 Athlon Sports Racing Magazine
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Who’s at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Their performance at the All-Star Race notwithstanding, Hendrick has clearly been the best-performing team through the first half of the 2022 regular season. All four drivers have won in the first 13 races, clinching a playoff bid while Chase Elliott leads the standings by 52 points over Ryan Blaney. What’s unexpected is their worst-performing driver is actually the sport’s defending champion, Kyle Larson. Larson sits ninth in points but someone who was at his best last season once the series hit its summer stretch.