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Big weekend ahead at Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has long been considered by many as one of NASCAR’s major events, a portfolio headlined by the Daytona 500, Southern 500, one or perhaps both of Talladega Superspeedway’s races and, since 1994, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The status is well-earned.

NASCAR’s longest race — 600 miles, 400 laps around the 1.5-mile CMS layout — is one of its most historic. Six times in the event’s 54 years, drivers have gotten their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win in the 600; four of those victories amounted to a preview of greatness: David Pearson in 1961, Jeff Gordon in 1994, Bobby Labonte in 1995 and Matt Kenseth in 2000.

In those 54 years, the race has been won by past, present or future Sprint Cup champions 28 times. And of the 26 times “non-champions” have won, you’re still talking about a stellar lineup that includes many of NASCAR’s all-time greats such as 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Fred Lorenzen, Jim Paschal, Marvin Panch, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison and Mark Martin.

This year, however, the focus is not so much on history as it is the present.

There are a number of drivers, starting with Kenseth and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who both need a win as quickly as possible. Both are winless this season and that’s not good. With the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format in place, race winners get first dibs on Chase berths; relying on your standing in the series points is not the preferred approach to qualifying for NASCAR’s “playoffs.”

“I love this race,” he said. “It’s such a challenge to all of us both mentally and physically. The (No.) 48 team does well here because it’s such a long race that you have the time to adjust on your car, make the changes from day to night and improve with each stop.”

For Kenseth, Johnson and just about anyone else in Sunday’s field yet to win this year, the 600 should seem inviting. Back to the talk of “firsts” - for 13 of the last 25 Coca-Cola 600 winners, it was their first win of the season.

A classic championship battle has developed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which returns to action Saturday at 2:45 p.m. (ABC) at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the History 300. The series standings leader, 18-year-old rookie Chase Elliott - whose father Bill was announced this week as a 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee — leads Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith by merely two points. Elliott has five top-five finishes this year including his spectacular, consecutive victories at Texas and Darlington last month.

Look for the points to stay tight after this week. CMS, like Texas, is a fast 1.5-mile track. Elliott leads the series in Driver Rating at “1.5s” with a 109.8; his average finish on intermediate tracks this year is 3.0. Sadler has four top-five results in 14 NNS races at Charlotte. Smith finished 10th and seventh, respectively, on the 1.5-mile ovals at Las Vegas and Texas earlier this year.