Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent
The yearly Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway may be the longest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn't mean that it always favors veteran drivers. As a matter-of-fact, the 600 has produced a laundry list of first-time winners over the years.
Names on the list of drivers who visited Sprint Cup victory lane for the first time after the 600-mile race include David Pearson in 1961, Jeff Gordon in 1994, Bobby Labonte a year later in 1995, Matt Kenseth in 2000, Casey Mears in 2007 and, most recently, David Reutimann in 2009. When you consider that Pearson and Gordon are second and third on the all-time win list, Pearson is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Gordon is a four-time Sprint Cup champion, and Kenseth and Labonte each have earned Cup titles, the Coca-Cola 600 seems to be a pretty good race in which to score career win number one.
I think it's safe to say that we are very capable of having success at Charlotte this weekend.
This weekend is shaping up to look like A.J. Allmendinger, driver of the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge, may just finally make that long-awaited trip to victory lane.
He did finish second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Sprint Showdown, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway, last weekend to advance to the Sprint All-Star Race. And that was after he had a flat tire at the start of the race, resulting in a pit stop as the rest of the field took the green flag for the 40-lap event.
Then, Allmendinger started the All-Star Race in the back and worked his way into the top-five of the running order fairly quickly before another tire issue took him out of contention and resulted in an 11th-place finish.
Allmendinger realizes that the Sprint Showdown and All-Star Race are vastly different from a 600-miler, but he's ready for the challenge.
"Obviously, running 600 miles is a lot different than last weekend's 40-lap Sprint showdown and the segments that made up 90 laps in the All-Star Race," Allmendinger said. "But based on the way we ran last weekend, I think it's safe to say that we are very capable of having success at Charlotte this weekend and in our 1.5-mile program in general. I think we learned a lot of things about the car last weekend that we can apply to this weekend's race."
Another reason for Allmendinger to be optimistic is that he'll take the green flag on Sunday night from behind the No. 22 car. It's the same car Kurt Busch drove to victory lane following the 2010 Coca-Cola 600. And the driver, himself, has been good at Charlotte as of late. He heads into the weekend with the third-best average finish in the two Sprint Cup races at the track last year, with an average just outside the top-five at 6.0.
Besides, Allmendinger's good in long races. He was part of the Michael Shank Racing team that won the Rolex 24 Grand-Am race early this year.
"That's one thing we never have to worry about," No. 22 crew chief Todd Gordon said. "A.J. is in the greatest physical condition possible. He knows how to prepare for the races, eating the right things and staying hydrated. If it comes down to the final 100 miles and stamina comes into play, A.J. will be one of the strongest guys out there."
Sunday night may finally be Allmendinger's night.