CHARLOTTE – Five things we learned from the Coca-Cola 600:
► Spreading it around: Austin Dillon became the second driver to win their first career race in 2017, securing one of 16 playoff spots. Granted, Dillon’s qualification is not incredibly surprising given that he did so on points last season. He was well outside the playoff boundary at 26th in points before winning, however. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s victory at Talladega on May 7 represented a leap in performance. And although he has made the playoffs on points before – finishing second although winless in 2014 – Ryan Newman’s tire gambit win at Phoenix on March 19 secured another automatic spot that some hopefuls might have considered in play. Nine different drivers have won races, although Joey Logano’s April 30 Richmond victory cannot be counted for playoff qualification because of a post-race penalty. He figures to nab another somewhere given Team Penske’s consistency. With 13 races left in the season, there’s plenty of mystery and a likelihood of anxiety over the automatic berths.
Kevin Harvick (fourth in points) and Kyle Busch (fifth) are securely inside the playoff zone but winless. If they each collect the win their statistics suggest is coming, two more spots will be down. Expect a first Cup win for Chase Elliott. That’s 12. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are also winless but Hamlin has won in every full-time season and Kenseth in five of his last six. That’s 14.
That leaves little margin for error for Jamie McMurray, who's sixth in points but winless since 2013; Clint Bowyer (last win 2012, ninth in points); the promising Ryan Blaney (no Cup wins, 12th in points); and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his final Cup season but 23rd in points.
► Ganassi Racing motors on: Kyle Larson had two encounters with the wall and lost the points lead with a season-low 33rd-place finish, but he had a fast car again. Teammate McMurray also had a fast car, using his to finish 12th. It was a rare week when both drivers didn’t parlay consistently good cars into results, though the trend line continues strong for the organization.
► JGR is getting closer: The team is still collectively winless, but had arguably its best collective performance in the Coca-Cola 600. Busch led 63 laps and finished second, Kenseth fourth, Hamlin fifth, and rookie Daniel Suarez 11th. That’s still not up to their collective pace of 2016 – when they had won seven by now - but the organization finally found some speed in the Toyotas.
“Our speed is better and we still have some work to do, especially with my car to get it driving better,” Kenseth said. “I still can’t run with the 78 and the (Kyle Busch) if they’re out in front of me, they’re still better than us. We still have some work to do, but we do have more speed and that’s encouraging.”
► Team Penske had an unfulfilling Memorial Day weekend: Helio Castroneves' bid for a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 win came up one place short. Otherwise, it was a sub-optimal day for a team that has won IndyCar’s greatest race a record 16 times and has developed into one of the most consistently productive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs. Juan Pablo Montoya finished sixth but Will Power crashed and defending series champion Simon Pagenaud was 14th as the team concluded a frustrating month. At Charlotte, former series champion Brad Keselowski was caught in an oil slick and rammed the hobbled No. 24 Chevrolet of Chase Elliott on Lap 19 of 400. He finished 39th of 40. Joey Logano had to re-pit after the rain delay because of a loose wheel and needed to top with fuel late to finish 23rd.
► Sticky situation: Cars able to burst out alone in undisturbed air controlled play in the 600, as usual. Generally, that car belonged to Truex Jr., who led seven times for 233 of 400 laps but finished third to Dillon and his fuel gamble. Truex Jr. said the VHT resin applied to attempt to open a top groove helped the situation at Charlotte. That might have been more apparent to competitors than observers and paying customers, but Truex Jr. called it a “good addition” after a staid all-star race at Charlotte.
“I think it was a huge factor,” he said. “I think last weekend the middle groove, middle to high middle, was nonexistent. It was the slickest part of the racetrack. Tonight for 375 laps of the 400 it was the main groove. Where typically there is the least grip on this racetrack, it was the most tonight. It definitely played a factor. It changed the race quite a bit.
“I think the downforce rules this year changed it quite a bit as well. The bottom of the racetrack is so bumpy and so slick, I'm telling you after 10 laps it's all you can do to make laps without crashing down there.”