Coca-Cola 600 has added significance this year

Charlotte Motor Speedway will be able to fill all its seats for the Cup Series’ longest race of the season on Sunday

The stands will again be full for the NASCAR Cup Series' Coca-Cola 600 this Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Mike McCarn / AP Photo)

From new tracks like last week’s Circuit of the Americas race highlighting a shift toward more road courses to a return to stock car racing’s roots with the dirt race at Bristol, it’s been a season of change and unpredictability in the NASCAR Cup Series.

The genesis for NASCAR’s revamped schedule came in 2018 when Charlotte Motor Speedway switched one of its two slots on the series schedule to the Roval configuration that drew acclaim from both drivers and viewers.

Charlotte did, however, lose the All-Star Race, which will now be held at Texas Motor Speedway after being at Bristol last season.

So what was usually two weeks of midseason action in the hub track of NASCAR has been reduced to one, but Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 holds no less clout than in years past. In COVID times, in fact, it might hold more than ever.

The longest race of the season comes just in time for CMS to throw its gates wide open to fans after Gov. Roy Cooper dropped COVID-19 restrictions on sporting events. That means up to 95,000 could be at the track for the Memorial Day weekend event.

“We are thrilled with today’s news that will allow fans to return to America’s Home for Racing without limitation,” Greg Walter, executive vice president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, said earlier this month. “From the outset of the pandemic, whether operating a drive-through testing clinic or hosting the state’s first mass vaccination event, this has been the ultimate goal — to get back to filling the grandstands for the biggest, most entertaining events in motorsports.”

On the track, there might be as many drivers with a chance to win the Coca-Cola 600 as there are fans in the stands.

Parity, it seems, has come to stock car racing.

After years of a handful of drivers dominating Victory Lane, the 2021 season has been a weekly grab bag of winners. Through 14 races, there have been 11 different winners, and only Martin Truex Jr. (three wins) and Alex Bowman (two) have won more than once.

It’s been even racing among the manufacturers as well, with Toyota and Chevrolet taking five wins apiece and Ford just one victory behind with four.

From little-known Michael McDowell opening the season with a shocking win at the Daytona 500 to defending series champion Chase Elliott finally getting in the win column last week at COTA, it’s been a season unlike any the Cup Series has seen in a long time.

Denny Hamlin has been held without a win despite a series-high nine top-five finishes and a 98-point lead on second-place William Byron in the standings. If Hamlin continues to run at the front week after week, he should eventually get that elusive win — but even if he doesn’t, a postseason berth is probably his to lose.

That said, the playoff format calls for 16 drivers, and with 11 spots already taken and a dozen races remaining before the 10-race postseason starts Sept. 5 at Darlington, no one is guaranteed a spot without a win.

“This year’s been a little different,” Hamlin said before the race at Kansas on May 2. “We’ve been really, really close and really, really consistent and up front. Just not the overall outright speed that we had last year. But we’re getting better.”

A trip to Charlotte might not be Hamlin’s best shot at getting into Victory Lane — he’s never won a Cup race at the track in 32 tries, including 29 on the 1½-mile oval.

Truex and Kevin Harvick — also without a win this season after leading the series with nine victories a year ago — have three wins on the oval. Brad Keselowski has a pair of victories at the track, including winning last year’s Coca-Cola 600 over Elliott and Ryan Blaney.

And then there’s Bubba Wallace, who will pilot the car co-owned by Hamlin and another staple of North Carolina sports, Michael Jordan. Would it surprise anyone to see a No. 23 claim victory in a big event?

Regardless of the results on the track, the atmosphere should be electric for NASCAR’s return to North Carolina — perhaps nearly 100,000 fan volts of energy.