Charlotte: Round 12 preview

*A Driver Named Mears Is Defending Champion -- In Charlotte *Kahne Looks For Follow-Up To All-Star Win *Strategy A Key In NASCAR's Longest Race *Hornish, Allmendinger Boosted By All-Star Efforts *600 Has Legacy Of Historic 'Firsts' Mears And...

*A Driver Named Mears Is Defending Champion -- In Charlotte
*Kahne Looks For Follow-Up To All-Star Win
*Strategy A Key In NASCAR's Longest Race
*Hornish, Allmendinger Boosted By All-Star Efforts
*600 Has Legacy Of Historic 'Firsts'

Mears And Memorial Day Weekend A Perfect Historical Match

Through the years, the name Mears has become synonymous with auto racing success on Memorial Day weekend. Rick Mears started that, with a record four victories in the Indianapolis 500. Last year, the family legacy was embellished with a monumental NASCAR win, as Casey Mears (No. 5 Kellogg's/ CARQUEST Chevrolet) -- Rick's nephew -- captured his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, winning the Coca-Cola 600.

Consider it a sign of the times: A Mears as a defending stock car race champion.

Casey Mears is part of a growing number of former open-wheel racers now in NASCAR. Prior to coming to NASCAR in 2002, he showed promise in off-road, Indy Lights and the CART Series.

"Going into the 600, I am just real excited," Mears said. "To come back and be able to defend a title for the first time at one of the biggest races of the year, being the month of May ... I think we have a great shot at it and I am looking forward to it. One of the real cool things from a team standpoint, coming back to Lowe's we are bringing the 500th chassis that Hendrick Motorsports has built. That is a big deal and a big milestone for the team. It would be great to have a victory with that car."

Kahne Hoping All-Star Momentum Leads To Chase Berth

The pressure is off.

Sort of.

Kasey Kahne got his first victory for one of the most recognizable sponsorships in all of sports this past Saturday night, as he brought the No. 9 Budweiser Dodge into Victory Lane, winning the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Kahne also made some history in the process. Because he hadn't won a series race in 2007 and thus far in 2008, he wasn't in the All-Star field -- until the annual fan vote, which places one driver in the All-Star race, went his way. Kahne then became the first All-Star champion who made the race via the fan vote.

The All-Star victory ended Kahne's winless streak that dated to October 2006 -- when he won at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

But since the All-Star event is a non-points race, technically, the winless streak lives.

Technicalities, though, have little to do with confidence, and Kahne's just received a major boost.

"As far as us coming out and winning the 600, we got some work to do,' Kahne said. "We have to keep working hard and doing the right things. But [the All-Star win] shows that our cars are not as far off [as I thought].

"I'm already looking forward to next weekend's 600."

Kahne, another former open-wheel racer who shifted personal gears and came to NASCAR, challenged for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title in 2006, winning six events and finishing eighth in series points.

Even though he has yet to win a points race in awhile, Kahne has run respectably this year. He comes into the 600 only two points out of 12th place, the cut-off for eligibility into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

NASCAR's "Endurance" Race Puts Emphasis on Strategy

NASCAR's longest race -- Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- is also, arguably, its most unique.

In addition to the out-of-the-ordinary distance, the event has a split personality, as it starts in the afternoon and ends under the lights.

Translation: What works set-up wise at 5:30 might not work at 10 p.m.

Driver -- and pit crew -- fitness also comes into play.

Four hundred laps equals 600 miles at the 1.5-mile venue, so all the above variables evolve with time and track conditions.

Which means patience and a flexible, long-term plan are key.

The green flag drops during the last few hours of daylight. A significant portion of the race takes place during twilight. It ends well into Sunday evening after the track surface has cooled and grip has increased.

Pit crews stay busy with adjustments that reflect driver preferences amid conditions. And pit stops, ever crucial, must maximize opportunity.

That was the scene in 2007, when defending Coca-Cola 600 winner Casey Mears and then-crew chief Darian Grubb paired a good performance with a calculated gamble. Near the end, they played fuel-mileage, staying on track while other teams pitted, and beat everyone else.

Mears' current crew chief, Alan Gustafson, anticipates accruing more data with NASCAR's new car; teams tested at Lowe's on May 5-6.

"With this car, we're not really sure," Gustafson said. "We haven't had that many situations with the changing track conditions. I think adjustability is the key. Throughout the test we tried some theories out so we knew what we could change from day to night."

Hornish, Allmendinger, Also Riding Wave Of Momentum

The 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge), predicted by many to be the most promising of all the former open-wheel racers who have come to NASCAR, is coming off his best NASCAR effort thus far -- a seventh-place finish in the prestigious NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. That run followed a second-place finish in the All-Star preliminary event -- the NASCAR Sprint Showdown, which sent its top-two finishers into the main event.

AJ Allmendinger (No. 84 Red Bull Toyota) won the Showdown, then finished 17th in the All-Star race. For Allmendinger, a five-time winner in the Champ Car Series, it was also a career highlight as far as NASCAR goes.

Both drivers will need whatever momentum the All-Star race provided, going into the Coca-Cola 600. Neither are guaranteed a starting spot, as their teams are outside the top 35 in car owner point standings.

Hornish is 36th.

Allmendinger is 40th

"Momentum is a huge tool," said Hornish's crew chief Chris Carrier. It's the best or worst tool there is in any competitive sport. Now we've got some momentum on our side. That's what we've been looking for all year, to try to get a little bit of that and now we've got some of it."

Added Hornish: "We keep trying to advance all the time and we think we're heading in the right direction."

Allmendinger, in his second season of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, said the Showdown victory felt, to him, like winning the Daytona 500.

"We definitely learned a lot about what the race track might do," Allmendinger said. "We'll assess what we learned and make those adjustments coming back for the 600. It all starts again ... got to qualify to get in the show."

Allmendinger's All-Star performance wrapped up an eventful week for Team Red Bull. Last Thursday, the pit crew for Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) won the NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge.

This week on the NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference, Mark Martin fielded media questions as he and the No. 8 U.S. ARMY Chevrolet team prepare for the Coca Cola 600 this weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

On the challenges of preparing for the Coca-Cola 600: "Well you know Lowe's Motor Speedway has always been one of the moodiest personalities as far as the pavement goes I think of any place that I have ever raced.

"And so the additional twist from day to night, practicing now and racing then, and qualifying there. Just all that movement adds a lot to the stress levels of the crew chiefs and folks like Tony Gibson and all. But it's really a lot of fun.

"It is perfect to have the All-Star race the week before the 600 because it gives you really the best practice possible for the 600. With the 600 starting in the day light and going into the night and lasting well into the night most of the time.

"It gives you an opportunity to practice during the day, and you get plenty of day time practice, but it gives you the chance to race under race conditions into the night the week before the 600. So it is a good thing for all the teams.

"It is the greatest venue in motorsports in my opinion. So I go to Lowe's with enthusiasm.

On the biggest change he has seen come down from NASCAR over the years: "Well the first thing that comes to my mind is the SAFER Barrier although the HANS Device is more significant at the bottom line for safety. But believe me that SAFER Barrier, it's a whole different world hitting that compared to what we used to hit back in the day."

Longest Race Has Made For Lasting Memories

When Casey Mears got his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in last year's Coca-Cola 600, it added to the race's legacy as a milestone-maker.

Since the race's 1960 inception, many drivers who would go on to become big-time stars have either debuted at the 600, or gotten their first victory in the event.

But if not Johnson, then whom?

Carl Edwards combines past LMS success with a incredible record on intermediate tracks with the new car. Edwards' three '08 wins -- Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas and Texas -- have all come on similar layouts.

At LMS, Edwards has finished outside the top 10 only once (15th in last year's Coca-Cola 600) and has two third-place finishes. In his LMS career, Edwards has a Driver Rating of 88.6, an Average Running Position of 15.0, 41 Laps in the Top 15.

Of course, there's also Kyle Busch, winner of two of the last three races this season. Though his finishes at LMS haven't been all that solid -- his average is 25.9 -- his statistics have.

Over the past six LMS races, Busch has a Driver Rating of 94.3 (second-best), an Average Running Position of 14.4 (fourth), 116 Fastest Laps Run (third), an Average Green Flag Speed of 177.051 mph (second), 1,504 Laps in the Top 15 (third) and 279 Quality Passes (second).

Top 35: There's Notoriety On The Wrong Side Of The Bubble

There are some illustrious racing resumes on the "wrong side" of the top 35 bubble this week.

Teams that are in the top 35 of the car owner point standings are guaranteed starting spots each week.

Those outside the top 35 must rely on qualifying speeds to make the field.

A look at positions 36-40 this week shows both a former Indianapolis 500 champion and a two-time Daytona 500 titlist on the outside looking in -- Sam Hornish and Sterling Marlin.

Hornish drives the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge for Roger Penske; Marlin is substituting for another former Indy 500 champ, injured Dario Franchitti, in the No. 40 Wii Fit Dodge owned by Felix Sabates.

Dave Blaney, in the No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota of Bill Davis, has the 35th and final locked-in spot this week.

Two teams that are safe this week nonetheless occupy what could be called a precarious perch.

Regan Smith, in the No. 01 Principal Financial Group-DEI Chevrolet owned by Teresa Earnhardt, is 34th but only 11 points ahead of Blaney.

Two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip, the driver/owner of the No. 55 NAPA Toyota, is 33rd but only 27 in front of Blaney.

NSCS, Etc.

Memorial Day Salute: Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 pre-race entertainment will feature an active and patriotic "Salute The Troops" theme. Among the planned activities are the presentation of 1,500 soldiers, plus an assault demonstration.

Participating troops hail from Fort Bragg and represent the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, the United States Airborne Army Special Operations Command and the North Carolina National Guard.

The 82nd Airborne All-American Chorus will perform, as will the Golden Knights -- the U.S. Army Parachute Team.

Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle group, which advocates for Prisoners of Wars and those Missing In Action, will ride a parade lap and make a special POW/MIA flag presentation. Also scheduled to appear -- and perform -- are NHRA Funny Car legend John Force, 200 bagpipers and Toyota's Tundra Monster Truck.

Honorary Officials: U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Salisbury, N.C., native, will serve as Sunday's honorary race director. Richard Thompson, the speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates, will serve as Sunday's honorary starter.

Country-music artist Darryl Worley will sing the National Anthem.

Dr. William K. Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C., will deliver Sunday's invocation.

And Dr. Robert H. Schuller, founder of the Orange Grove, Calif.-based Crystal Cathedral church, will led those in attendance in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Up Next: Monstrous Time Set For Dover International Speedway

Dover International Speedway is called the "Monster Mile." They even have a mascot to prove it. That would be "Miles" (shown at left).

The mascot, and the track's nickname, are based on the hard reality of racing at Dover's one-mile concrete oval, which is fast and challenging, likened by some as a "big Bristol."

Next up on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is the first of two 2008 races at Dover -- the Best Buy 400.

Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) is the defending champion. Truex's win last year was his first in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and helped fuel his charge to an eventual berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Truex finished 11th in the final 2007 points.

Truex hasn't won since last year's Dover spring race. He considers Dover his "home track" because of the speedway's relative closeness to his hometown of Mayetta, N.J.

He comes into Dover 15th in points, only 36 behind 12th-place David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Insurance Ford).

The Race: Coca-Cola 600
The Place: Lowe's Motor Speedway

The Date: Sunday, May 25
The Time: 5:30 p.m. (ET)

The Track: 1.5-mile oval
The Distance: 600 miles/400 laps

TV: FOX, 5 p.m. (ET)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS Satellite Radio

2007 Winner: Casey Mears
2007 Polesitter: Ryan Newman

Pre-Race Schedule:
Thursday -- Practice, 3-4:30 p.m. Qualifying -- 7:10 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice, 2:45-3:30 and 6-6:50 p.m.

- credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Michael Waltrip , John Force , Sterling Marlin , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Dario Franchitti , Rick Mears , Kasey Kahne , Martin Truex Jr. , Brian Vickers , Carl Edwards , Regan Smith , David Ragan , Dave Blaney , Roger Penske , Felix Sabates , Sam Hornish Jr. , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , Chris Carr
Teams Hendrick Motorsports