Kurt Busch is sizzling (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The Grand Prix of Monaco, the Indianapolis 500, and then the Coke 600. Makes for quite a full Sunday of racing.
It's also the point in the NASCAR season where drivers and teams can begin assessing their championship potential, as they prepare to head into the stock car tour's annual summer country-crisscross.
One big wild card so far this NASCAR season -- Kurt Busch.
The volatile Busch has learned to tame his famous temper and focus, focus, focus, and it's paying off.
He had the car to beat in Saturday night's All-Star race, though falling to Jimmie Johnson on the final pit stop. And Kurt is starting off the 600 weekend just as stout.
Busch ripped off a hot qualifying lap of 195.221 mph Thursday evening, near sunset, one of several drivers cracking the track record (193.708), and he was clocked at a stunning 203 mph into the corner. Credit crew chief Todd Berrier for the car, and credit Busch for getting that much speed out of the Chevy.
But even that wasn't good enough for the pole -- Toyota's Denny Hamlin, still on the comeback trail, pulled that off with a 195.624.
It was Hamlin's second pole of the season. He was on the pole at California's Auto Club Speedway. "And how did that turn out," Hamlin dead-panned, referring to the last lap crash while battling Joey Logano for the win at the Los Angeles track.
Recovered? "Everything feels good," Hamlin says. "Everything should be good."
Toyota took four of the top five in qualifying, Gibbs' men first, third and eighth.
Jimmie Johnson says at these speeds "Your committment level has to match the track's grip level...."
"It takes nerve to do it, and you've got to have a fast car," Hamlin said with a grin.
The sport's longest race will start around 6 p.m. ET Sunday, when Charlotte Motor Speedway is still hot and slick and unpredictable. And it will end about 10:30 p.m., with the track cooler and with more grip. The team chasing the changing track the best will probably have the best shot at winning.
One big question: will the final stretch Sunday be a full 60-lap (90-mile) gas run, or a 10-lap or so sprint?
Another question: will fuel mileage play a role?
Another Busch brothers show shaping up for the Charlotte Coke 600? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kurt and brother Kyle were easily the quickest in Thursday practice, though Kyle was only eighth in qualifying. The early line on the 600 looks to be shaping up as something of a replay of the All-Star: the Busch brothers versus Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne...with Toyota's Joe Gibbs trio of Denny, Kyle and Matt serious threats for a top-three sweep.
Kenseth, off in the All-Star, for some reason, dismissed questions about what he might have here, qualifying inside of the second row. "We haven't been in race trim all day, but we are clearly happy with the speed we have in the car," said Kenseth, who has never renowned as a qualifier -- something that changed dramatically when he joined Gibbs this season.
Another possible question: Ford drivers, including Brad Keselowski. They haven't shown much speed so far. Keselowski is without crew chief Paul Wolfe again this week; Wolfe is on NASCAR suspension for that trick rear end at Texas. Keselowski was a disappointing 20th in quals; teammate Joey Logano was even further off, 31st.
"The Joe Gibbs teams are all hitting on all eight cylinders," Kurt Busch said. "But I think the race will come to us Sunday. I have such confidence in my team. To put the pedal down and have it stick....."
Denny Hamlin, after missing several races, with that injury, is mired 27th in the standings and needs to win and crack the top-20 to make a run at the championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Two of this week's hottest stories are Bruton Smith and Bruton Smith.
Smith made big waves when he said it was 70 percent sure that he would move the fall Charlotte 500 to Las Vegas next year, to put Las Vegas in the championship chase. He did back off a bit, saying it wasn't a done deal. However 70-30, the numbers he used, are pretty strong.
Jeff Gordon: "I can't imagine not racing here three times a year, or certainly two points races. I love racing here.
"It's nice to be home, and this is such a special track. People flock from all over the country not just because of the facility, but the Hall of Fame, the city itself, the team shops...
"At the same time Las Vegas makes great sense from a marketing standpoint. When we look at the sport and where we're at and how to grow it and get those seats filled, you would certainly think that a race in Las Vegas in October would do pretty well.
"I think Las Vegas deserves to have two races. I would not want to see us take away a race from here."
So just why did NASCAR's hand-picked panel of voters turn down Bruton Smith? How badly does that damage the credibility of the fledgling Charlotte Hall of Fame? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The other Bruton Smith story -- he was again dissed by NASCAR's hand-picked panel of voters for the Charlotte Hall of Fame.
The credibility of this particular racing museum has been questioned almost from the day it opened in 2010, because NASCAR executives, who run it, have excluded a large swath of stock car racing legends.
And with NASCAR's voters again shunning Smith, a key sports figure here since he opened this track in 1960, the downtown museum may have lost its last bit of validity....certainly in relationship to the sport's original Hall of Fame at Darlington.
Meanwhile, with Jimmie Johnson's come-from-behind victory in last weekend's All-Star race, writers here are once again billing him as possibly the greatest NASCAR driver of all time.
Yes, Johnson is amazing, not just for his five championships and driving talents but for the seeming inevitability of it all -- no matter how far down he and team may be team, they are invariably a threat to fight back into contention.
Kenseth is a believer:
"People can say whatever they want about him, but I don't know how you can't say he's not the best ever," Kenseth says.
"You look at what he's done with Chad Knaus; nobody has ever put up numbers like that.
"Nobody has ever won five championships in a row and probably never will.
"It's cool to be part of that because someday you look back at history and 'Oh yeah, I raced against him.'
"But at the same time it stinks because you get beat so many times."
Matt Kenseth: this season's biggest winners says Jimmie Johnson may well be the best stock car racer of all time (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
So it may be interesting, and ominous, that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus haven't used any of their season's tests yet, and have no particular plans to, either.
"Luckily all the (Hendrick) cars are running good, and we're able to sit on our test sessions right now and use them in the best manner possible -- hopefully on chase tracks. That would be the ideal situation," Johnson says.
"As we get through the summer, if we have a teammate that's near that cutoff point, and we need to get stronger at a regular-season racetrack, we can have that strategy in place too."
Johnson's own preference for a track to test at: Phoenix. "We finished second there in the spring, but we didn't have the confidence the race weekend we wanted to. We raced better than we expected to, finished better than we thought.
"But from our team's standpoint, that's probably the hottest track in our mind to test at."
Jimmie Johnson at the All-Star finish line. And how far back is the runner-up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)