CHARLOTTE, NC (Brendan Marks/Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte and NASCAR, there's just something about that relationship, that connection over the years, that all comes flooding back whenever it's time for the Coca-Cola 600.
The Earnhardt legacy, Humpy Wheeler's crazy promotions. Bruton Smith and Austin Dillon.
They're all part of the same legacy at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and especially the Coca-Cola 600.
And at last, it's finally upon us.
The best part? There's a place for everyone, whether you're less-inclined to follow NASCAR regularly or a die-hard fan living near the speedway. T
he thing about the 600, though, is that it's not like any other race, at 600 miles long, it's easily the longest in NASCAR.
That presents a whole new set of challenges, like running out of gas or tires late in the race, that can often be the difference between winning and losing.
The question is: Who are the drivers likely to be in those tight late-race situations?
Here are three favorites and three dark horses to win the Coca-Cola 600:
Kevin Harvick: As the kids these days say: duh. Harvick has been undoubtedly NASCAR's best driver this season, winning five of the season's first 12 races. Oh yeah, plus he won the All-Star Race at Charlotte last week. And as if you still needed more convincing why Harvick is the favorite of all the favorites, factor in that he's won three times at Charlotte in his career and finished outside the Top 10 just once in his last 10 races here. 'Nuff said.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex hasn't had nearly the dominant season this year that he did in 2017, but he's still one of NASCAR's best drivers and one of the safest bets to do well at Charlotte. He won at CMS in the playoffs in the fall, and he also won the 2016 Coca-Cola 600, so his recent track record (no pun intended) is one of the best among active drivers. He crashed out of the All-Star Race through no fault of his own, and a second career 600 win would go a long ways towards helping him mount another playoff run.
Jimmie Johnson: Hear me out. No, Johnson isn't having a typical season this year, having not won a race in practically a calendar year. But after an abysmal start to 2018, he's quietly been improving each week, now to the point where he's back in playoff territory. A win in the 600 would be huge for Johnson's rebound this season, and it's not out of the question: He's won eight times at Charlotte before, the most of any active driver, and he looked strong in the All-Star Race. It's not out of the question at all.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin and the next name on this list might not be the first people you think of when you hear "dark horse," but at Charlotte, they certainly fit the bill. Hamlin, for all his successes at NASCAR's top level, has never won at Charlotte (something else he and the next name on this list share). Hamlin is seventh in the Cup Series points standings and has a handful of Top 5's, but his first 600 victory would help push him into this season's upper echelon of drivers. Another note: Hamlin started on the pole at CMS in the fall, but only finished fourth. Wouldn't he love a shot at redemption there?
Kyle Busch: Again, it's hard to say the current points leader in NASCAR's Cup Series is ever anything but a favorite, but in this case, there's an exception to the rule. Busch has also never won at Charlotte, but he's come much closer to winning than Hamlin. Just last May he finished second in the 600, just barely failing to catch Austin Dillon from behind. You think he's forgotten that? Or the fact that his three wins this season have been overshadowed by Harvick's five? Not hardly — and Sunday, he'll have the chance to make good on those misses.