With Charlotte Motor Speedway, fans are beginning to expect the unexpected

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMay 24, 2014 

— Charlotte Motor Speedway has been giving NASCAR’s superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega a run for their money of late.

Not in large, violent crashes or even lead changes but rather in producing surprising results.

That trend is particularly evident when it comes to NASCAR’s longest race, the annual Coca-Cola 600.

In the past decade, the 600 has produced a pair of first-time winners in the Sprint Cup Series, in David Reutimann and Casey Mears, and also some surprising memorable finishes.

Kevin Harvick earned his first win in the 600 in 2011 when then-leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas on the last lap.

In 2010, Kurt Busch used a late-race pit stop to take the lead from Jamie McMurray and win.

Reutimann’s win in 2009 came when rain ended the race early and Mears’ victory in 2007 came on a dicey fuel-mileage gamble.

Still, it’s probably more likely the winner of Sunday’s 600 (6 p.m., Fox) will be a familiar face. In fact, Jimmie Johnson – a six-time Cup champion and seven-time winner at Charlotte (not including his three all-star race wins) – starts from the pole.

Even a Johnson victory could count as something as a surprise. Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team has yet to win in the 2014 season.

“Honestly, no matter what I do, people talk about it and I don’t mean that in a bad way. If I win, then I’m winning too much. If I’m not winning, then it’s ‘Why aren’t you winning?’ So I can’t do it right either way,” Johnson said.

“I learned a long time ago to not pay attention to the outside voices and influences and just worry about my race team. We’ve been close to wins and we’ve been pathetic at other tracks. This is a good track for us.”

In the 54-year history of the 600, series champions – past, present or future – have won 28 times.

That bodes well for 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, who starts alongside Johnson on the front row.

“This race kind of goes back to the history of this sport, being 600 miles. I think that’s a good thing,” said Keselowski, who is still looking for his first win in the 600 although he won the fall Cup race at Charlotte last season.

“I’m not sure of any other sport or motorsport that does 600 miles straight in four-and-a-half to five hours of competition. I think it’s probably one of the most difficult challenges in all of sports, but it’s one that I embrace and I really like.”

Perhaps the most logical candidate to produce another surprise ending in the 600 is Jamie McMurray, who is already $1 million richer from his unexpected victory in last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race.

McMurray stunned the NASCAR world in October 2002 when he earned a victory at Charlotte in just his second Cup series start, substituting for injured driver Sterling Marlin.

His runner-up finish to Busch in 2010 is McMurray’s best 600 performance, one he would like to replicate on Sunday.

“Coming in here after winning the All-Star Race, I feel probably better than I have all year long because you’re coming back to a track that you feel you have a good set-up at and it’s a good track for me,” McMurray said.

For McMurray, a victory on Sunday would also all-but clinch a spot in the Chase championship thanks to NASCAR’s offseason rules changes.

“There is still a lot of racing left to go,” he said. “We’ve had really good cars all year and certainly we are not sitting very good in the points standings (24th).

“But if you’re in the position that our team is in, it’s about getting a win and getting locked in. That’s what we need.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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