NASCAR back home in Charlotte

Oct 11, 2005 2:55 AM

With six races remaining in the chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup title, the series rolls into Charlotte, its home port. Nearly every team is headquartered in North Carolina.

The 1½-mile speedway, located a few miles outside of Charlotte in Concord, has been around since 1960. The configuration of the track with its 24 degrees of banking has duplicates in Atlanta and Texas, but Charlotte stands alone as the epicenter of NASCAR.

Not only has "King" Richard Petty raced on the storied grounds, but so has the other "King" Elvis Presley. Everyone remembers the movie "Speedway" co-starring Bill Bixby and Nancy Sinatra where Elvis had to race himself out of debt with the IRS by winning races.

Elvis was taking care of business by winning what seemed like a dozen races on the famed track. Winning at that ratio seemed far-fetched and hardly believable on a track like Charlotte. That was until Jimmie Johnson (6-1) came onto the scene.

Johnson has won four of the last five Cup races in Charlotte, including the last three in dominating fashion. Ironically, he is sponsored by Lowe’s chain of home improvement stores that also sponsor the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Coming into this season’s Coca-Cola 600 back in May, there was uncertainty about how the new surface would impact the regular top performers, most notably Johnson. What happened during the longest race in NASCAR proved Johnson was still better than everyone else and elevated his Hendrick teammates to new heights.

Each one of Johnson’s teammates led a lap in the May race. Brian Vickers (14-1) led the most laps and even part time teammate Terry Labonte led a lap. While Jack Roush’s team continues to thrust forward as the one to beat week after week in the cookie cutter circuit, Hendrick and Chevy still have a place. They can claim to have a clear advantage at races without restrictor plates.

A few weeks ago several teams visited the Charlotte track for a test session. The Hendrick group was led by Kyle Busch (12-1), who had the second fastest recorded lap time. All the information gained from that session, coupled with everything else the Hendrick team already knows, will surely make all of them contenders to win the race this week. That’s the case, even if Jeff Gordon (12-1) should reap some sort of rewards from the information.

The teams’ main goal was to figure out different kinds of tire combinations due to the new surface. Incidentally the surface has been worked on again because of the many complaints received from several drivers after the last race.

Tony Stewart (7-1) had the fastest test session time. Stewart was also involved in an accident during the session, which he blamed on the surface. He has a 75-point lead over the second place driver in the standings and is at a track where he could widen the margin. Stewart is the last driver to win a points race at Charlotte other than Johnson, and it came in this event three years ago.

As the second favorite to win and sponsored driver of Lowe’s home improvement store’s top competitor, Home Depot, don’t expect Stewart to settle for just a good finish. There is nothing more satisfying for a sponsor than to win their competitors sponsored race, or in this case, on their track. While it seems small as a motivational factor, it truly is large to those who pay Stewart’s bills.

Mark Martin (12-1) jumped back into the winner’s circle last week at Kansas for his first "points" win of the season, but it wasn’t his first victory. In May, Martin won the non-points All-Star race in Charlotte. Martin has been good on almost every type of track over the last two campaigns, but he had a three-year stretch where his car struggled on almost every track except Charlotte.

Martin is the last Ford to win at CMS, doing so in the 2002 Coca-Cola 600. He’s had the best car on a few occasions since then, but experienced some bad luck that resulted in Johnson winning two of those races. Martin may appear to be the obvious front runner from the Ford camp, but Roush has a few other entries that are sure to do well. In fact, Roush has his entire stable of cars that figure to run well in hopes of giving Ford a win in the UAW-GM Quality 500 for the first time six races when Martin did it.

In another sponsorship twist, there is nothing more Ford would love than to have the General Motors race sponsors and executives see a Taurus winning. Should that happen, I would lay up to -200 that Ford will buy a full page ad in Monday’s USA Today to show the country how proud it is to win the GM sponsored race.

Greg Biffle (12-1) and Kurt Busch (12-1) both had excellent practice time last month in Charlotte. Biffle was involved in Stewart’s crash during that practice and was still somewhat banged up physically from that day. To see Carl Edwards (15-1) and Matt Kenseth (14-1) winning wouldn’t be an upset either. They all pass on information and sometimes share the actual cars at Roush Racing.