In six starts in the Coca-Cola 600, a pair of ninth-place finishes has been the best Denny Hamlin has managed. However, three straight top-10 finishes at Charlotte and the fastest lap in Saturdayís opening practice point to a potential career-night in NASCARís longest race. Hamlin is sitting fourth in points with two wins under his belt in what has been a bounceback year for the No. 11 bunch. Fantasy owners scared off by his 16.6 career average finish at Charlotte should definitely reconsider before they miss out on another big performance from Hamlin.
Another driver attempting to shake off some rust at Charlotte during practice was Paul Menard. He enters Sundayís race with a 23.7 average finish at Charlotte and just one top-10 finish in 10 starts. However, he did finish eighth in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600, and he posted the second-fastest lap in the first practice Saturday. Menard has also had a history of success at 1.5-mile tracks, and while he isnít a sure thing, he is a potential sleeper option for owners.
Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five in the opening session, and while all three deserve consideration, Busch is the top option to target. He rolls into Charlotte with four straight top-10 finishes, and he has finished eighth or better in eight of his last nine starts at the track. In fact, Busch has finished third or better three of his last four starts at Charlotte, and he led the most laps on his way to a second-place finish last fall. Busch is on a roll and heading into Sundayís race at one of his best tracks. A trip to Victory Lane is a definite possibility.
Of course, one fast lap isnít going to win a 600-mile marathon, and in terms of 10-lap average speeds, Truex led the way in the first practice. Itís the same story for Truex, who has been outperforming his career numbers at just about every track in 2012. With just two top-10s in 13 starts, his numbers at Charlotte are ugly. However, he has earned his way into the fantasy circle of trust for the time being, and until he cools off, there is no reason to think he wonít back up his practice times on race day.
Brad Keselowski and Menard ranked second and third in terms of 10-lap average speeds, while Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin rounded out the top five. After qualifying sixth and showing some long-run speed, Martin looks like a save bet to finish in or around the top 10. Meanwhile, Johnson continues to establish himself as the driver to beat this weekend. After dominating at Darlington two weekends ago and the All-Star Race last weekend, he qualified third for Sundayís race. With six wins at Charlotte during the regular season and three more in the All-Star Race, Johnson is the frontrunner to win tomorrow night.
Keselowski kept the momentum going in Happy Hour, posting the fastest lap of the session. Like Truex and Menard, owners can add Keselowski to the list of drivers that have been mediocre at Charlotte in the past but look primed for a big weekend. The fact that he has been running his best over the past month, stringing together four straight top-15 finishes, only boosts his value further.
Edwards, Martin and Johnson were next on the charts, while Logano rounded out the top five. Given his past success at Charlotte, Logano could make a solid addition to fantasy rosters. He actually leads all active drivers with an 8.2 average finish at the track, and in six starts, he has never finished worse than 13th.
During the final practice, several familiar names topped the charts in terms of 10-lap average speeds. Johnson led the way, and he did so by a wide margin. Hamlin, Martin and Menard followed, while the lone newcomer to the top-five was Kevin Harvick. The defending race winner used fuel strategy to score the victory last year, but he does have three straight finishes of 11th or better at Charlotte. Harvick should have another solid run Sunday, but he probably doesnít have a car to challenge the likes of Johnson and Hamlin without another brilliant strategy call.
Owners looking for a couple of sleeper picks might want to consider Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger. Ambrose is starting on the outside of the front row tomorrow night, and he finished fifth and sixth in two starts at Charlotte last year. Allmendinger finished seventh and fifth in his two starts at the track in 2011, and he rallied back from a cut tire to make the All-Star Race last weekend. More importantly, both drivers cracked the top 15 in both practice session Saturday.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
Second Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
Don't miss these great reports....