Who's the 600 favorite? Just look back one week
May 21, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
After his victory this past weekend in the Sprint All-Star Race, McMurray is the only driver with a shot at achieving the ultimate goal for every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitor at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May -- following a triumph in the non-points exhibition with a win in the Coca-Cola 600, one of the biggest events of the season, much less the month. Over the 29 years both races have been contested at the Charlotte track, a sweep has occurred seven times, most recently by Busch in 2010.
After an 11th-place finish Saturday, Busch's focus now turns to tackling the 600 and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day. But McMurray's chances of duplicating that 2010 feat might be better than you think, despite the fact that the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has won just a single points event -- that at Talladega Superspeedway last fall -- over the past three seasons at NASCAR's highest level. But he won’t be the only driver trying to parlay success from one event into success in the other, given that strength in the All-Star Race traditionally portends good things for the same drivers in the 600.
But first, McMurray. He didn't just win the All-Star Race, he led the most laps in a car that none of his rivals could run down at the end. Granted, the exhibition this season concluded with a mandatory four-tire stop and 10-lap sprint that didn't exactly give anyone the opportunity to make a real leap from the back of the pack, and the 600 is a completely different animal which places a premium on reliability and strategy at the end. But having a good car is half the battle, and McMurray clearly had one, and at a time of night that could well replicate what drivers will be facing this Sunday evening when the NASCAR marathon nears its conclusion.
The Ganassi driver has other factors in his favor as well -- he's won two points races at Charlotte, his shocking debut in relief of the injured Sterling Marlin in 2002, and the third leg of his Daytona-Brickyard-Charlotte triple crown in the fall of 2010. "This is a really good track for me," he said after cashing in for a cool $1 million last Saturday night. And it's also been good to his first-year crew chief, Keith Rodden, formerly the engineer on a No. 5 team that won the 600 two years ago, and overall part of four victories at the 1.5-mile facility with driver Kasey Kahne.
Of course that institutional knowledge helps, but it's only good if it's put into practice. McMurray and Rodden certainly did that this past Saturday, when the No. 1 car led 31 of 90 laps, including all 10 in the final segment. Although top Sprint Cup teams don't normally use the same car for the All-Star Race they'll employ for the 600 -- and indeed, McMurray will be behind the wheel of a different chassis for the points event -- the information gained very often translates, and drivers who lead laps in the exhibition traditionally have a very good chance of contending the following Sunday evening.
The key is to look beyond just All-Star winners, and also take into account drivers who proved they could run up front even if they didn't end up in Victory Lane. Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star event a year ago, but it was Kurt Busch -- denied in the exhibition by a slow final pit stop -- who led the most laps and finished third in the 600 the following week. Johnson also won the All-Star Race in 2012, but it was Brad Keselowski who led the most laps and then finished fifth in the 600. Over the 29 years the two races have been contested in Charlotte, the driver who has won or led the most laps in the All-Star Race has gone on to score a top-five finish in the 600 a total of 21 times.
It doesn't matter the era, doesn't matter the time of day. Darrell Waltrip swept the All-Star exhibition and 600 in 1985, the first season both were in Charlotte, and the runner-up in the points race was Harry Gant -- who had led the most laps the week before. When Waltrip won the 600 three years later, he did it after leading the most laps in an All-Star event won by Terry Labonte. After lights were added at Charlotte, the two events became even more similar -- Davey Allison followed his spectacular (yet painful) victory in the 1992 All-Star classic with a fourth-place result the next week, and Ernie Irvan turned in back-to-back fifths in the 600 after leading the most laps in the exhibition in 1993 and '94.
The bottom line to all this seems be that the All-Star Race and nighttime portion of the 600 are very similar, and having a strong car in one can often mean a good car in the other. It goes on and on: Jeff Gordon wins the 600 in 1998 after leading the most laps in an All-Star Race won the previous weekend by Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes fourth in the 600 one week after his All-Star victory in 2000, All-Star winners place top-five in the 600 in five of eight seasons between 2003 and 2010. It's the sweep attempt that gets all the attention, but leading laps in the All-Star Race truly does bode well for the 600, something Kahne and Carl Edwards can take solace in as they prepare for this weekend.
In fact, if you remove cars not running at the finish -- due to either accidents or mechanical breakdowns -- drivers who have led the most laps in the All-Star race have gone on to finish top-10 the following weekend 16 out of 23 times, a fabulous batting average by any standard. A lot can happen in the 600, which has had its share of rain-shortened finishes and wonky fuel-mileage outcomes, and those events surely skew the results. And although top-10s in NASCAR are good enough to merit their own statistical category, they're not always the most accurate barometer of who's capable of winning a race. Still, when it comes to May in Charlotte, when a driver is in contention one weekend, he's more than likely to be in contention again the next.
All that is certainly encouraging for McMurray, who'll take his All-Star victory, all his laps led from the previous weekend, and his strong Charlotte track record into NASCAR's longest race, where his best finish was second in 2010. But hey, Denny Hamlin finished second in the 600 in 2012 after leading 16 laps the week before. Two years earlier, Kyle Busch finished third in the 600 after leading 23 laps in an exhibition won by his older brother. If history is any indication, you won't have to squint through the smoke of pre-race fireworks to see the favorites for the Coca-Cola 600 -- you'll need only to look back one week.