The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to points racing on Sunday night with one of the season's most anticipated races: the Coca-Cola 600. Last week, five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star race, receiving a big paycheck but no points.
Johnson will once again be among the top contenders at the annual Memorial Day weekend showcase. He's won the marquee race three times before but not since 2005. Kasey Kahne, who won last year's race, and Jeff Gordon are the other active drivers with three Coca-Cola 600 wins.
The midseason spectacle also provides an opportunity for struggling drivers such as Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart to begin turning things around. With the All-Star race in the rear-view mirror, the mad dash for the Chase should start to heat up.
It all adds up to an intriguing night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Let's take a look at all the vital viewing information for the race, followed by a list of top qualifiers and a deeper dive into some drivers worth watching on Sunday.
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
When: Sunday, May 26 at 6 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NASCAR RaceView
Sprint Cup Series practice – Saturday, 10 a.m. ET on SPEED
Sprint Cup Series final practice – Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on SPEED
2013 Coca-Cola 600 – Sunday, 6 p.m. ET on Fox
For the complete qualifying order, visit NASCAR's official site.
Drivers to Watch
Not only did Hamlin secure his second pole of the season, he did so in record-breaking fashion. His top speed during qualifying was several fractions better than any other car in the field, which bodes well for his chances in the race itself.
FOX SPORTS: NASCAR @NASCARONFOX
Denny Hamlin sets a new track record en route to winning the Coca-Cola 600 pole. KuBusch, Kenseth, Martin and Bowyer top five. #NASCAR2013-5-24 00:29:57
Hamlin is playing catch up after missing four races earlier in the season due to injury. He's going to need a consistent run of top finishes in order to make up for lost time. He currently sits in a tie for 26th place—more than 100 points behind the wild cards.
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota must do better to capitalize on his pole position than he did at the Auto Club 400. There Hamlin started up front but faded to a 25th-place finish. The good news is he has four top 10s in seven Coca-Cola 500 starts.
Johnson is having yet another terrific season. He's finished in the top 10 eight times in 11 races, including six of the past seven. The star has also won twice—three times if you count the All-Star race—and hasn't finished worse than 22nd.
The last fact is often overlooked but crucial for any championship contender. Avoiding the deep-pack finishes is just as important as the top 10s. Johnson has done a great job of staying out of trouble, and it's allowed him to build a big lead.
He will start 12th, which obviously isn't ideal, but it doesn't count him out. When he won the race for the first time in 2003, he started in 37th. A race that lasts 600 miles provides plenty of time for drivers to make up ground, and few are better than Johnson at doing exactly that.
Busch would fall into the category of drivers needing to make their move. He's had a solid season with a couple top fives and a pole, but two DNFs have set him back a bit. Starting on the front row gives the veteran a great chance to make up some ground.
The 34-year-old Las Vegas native won the Coca-Cola 600 three years ago. His track record in the race is otherwise spotty, however, with an average finish outside the top 20. Anything close to that on Sunday would be a major disappointment.
He's clearly got the car to make a serious push toward victory lane. Given that his margin for error to make the Chase will only continue to shrink from here, he can't let these golden opportunities slip away. Expect a strong showing from the No. 78 Chevy.