Ah, the Coca-Cola 600. Drink it in, NASCAR’s backyard crown jewel always goes down smooth.
One of the sport’s most storied races, 600 miles of pure synergy between car, driver and perspiration over the course of a blistering North Carolina evening sunset tends to see the cream rise to the top. A look back at the history of winners of stock-car racing’s longest event shows a litany of superstars and champions, with a few surprises sprinkled in (such as Casey Mears in 2007; Austin Dillon’s first win in 2017).
With the 2021 running of NASCAR’s marathon race right around the corner, NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and Chase Wilhelm make their picks for the driver most likely to win this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 — who hasn’t yet.
Read on and be sure to tune in to see 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET (FOX, PRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio).
DeCOLA: Let’s see … cream rising to the top, superstar, champion, hasn’t won the Coca-Cola 600 before. By default, the answer here on paper has to be Chase Elliott, no?
NASCAR races don’t play out on paper, however, but Elliott still makes a fine choice to pick up his first crown jewel of any kind this weekend. Not only is the No. 9 Chevrolet driver the defending series champion, he’s also the most recent Cup Series race winner after claiming the inaugural Circuit of The Americas trophy this past weekend. The victory was his first of the season and it came amidst a four-race streak with an average finish of 4.0. He also happens to have the good fortune of driving for the season’s best team in Hendrick Motorsports, which has won five of the season’s 14 races so far.
OK, that all sounds great, but how is he at Charlotte? Glad you asked.
Elliott is the most recent winner on the oval configuration at the Concord, North Carolina track, winning on a steamy Thursday night in late May last year just days after placing second in the 2020 Coca-Cola 600. Over the past five races there on this layout, the 12-time Cup winner has averaged, again, a 4.0 finish, on top of leading double-digit laps in five of the last seven.
Needless to say, the notebook that the 25-year-old champ and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be bringing to the track this weekend is likely already about flawless. Given that there’s actually going to be a practice session for this race, expect any hiccups in the No. 9’s setup for Sunday to be ironed out fairly quickly. It seems borderline impossible that — barring incident, it is a long race after all — Elliott won’t be at least in contention for the win.
And who better to bring home Hendrick’s 269th all-time Cup trophy and break the longstanding Petty Enterprises mark of 268?
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WILHELM: A champion is a fine pick, but I’m going to go with some hometown cooking for Sunday night’s 600-miler.
Charlotte native William Byron is having a fantastic year in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. His consistency has been unmatched, as his streak of top 10s ended last Sunday at Circuit of The Americas at 11 with an 11th-place finish. New crew chief Rudy Fugle has been exactly what Byron needed to propel him into potential championship contention.
Byron also owns two top starting spots at the Charlotte oval, with the first coming in the 2019 Coca-Cola 600 and the second in the series’ last trip on the oval in 2020. Byron was able to turn 2019’s pole run into his only top-10 finish there in four career starts — a ninth-place result.
Although the stats from a driver at Charlotte specifically could make a better case, I’m focusing on Byron’s recent results this season and the determination he’ll bring to earn victory in one of NASCAR’s biggest races at his home track. I think Byron’s drive and motivation to reach Victory Lane on Sunday night outweighs it all.