Action, significance abound in Coca-Cola 600 top storylines

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The countdown to Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has begun.

The green flag is slated to drop at approximately 6:07 p.m. ET for the longest and most grueling race on the Sprint Cup schedule — 400 laps (barring a green-white-checker finish that might extend that number) around the 1.5-mile oval.

Among the top storylines to watch for in the race:

* How will Kurt Busch fare after finishing a quite respectable sixth in the Indianapolis 500? Busch is the first driver to attempt the so-called “Double” since Robby Gordon last tried it in 2004.

* How will Jeff Gordon’s (photo) back feel after spasms forced him to cut short his first practice run and completely miss the entire second practice session Saturday? If Gordon cannot start, or if his spasms worsen during the course of the event, Regan Smith is on standby to replace Gordon if need be.

* Danica Patrick is coming off not only her best-ever Sprint Cup finish two weeks ago at Kansas (seventh), she qualified fourth for tonight’s race and was consistently in the top 10 in both of Saturday’s practice sessions. Is she poised to continue that recent success and potentially pull off one of the biggest surprises and upsets in Sprint Cup history with a win tonight? If she stays out of trouble, it’s a definite possibility.

* Kasey Kahne is in the hunt for his fourth career Coca-Cola 600 win. If he’s able to turn the trick, he’d also earn his first win of the 2014 season.

* Speaking of drivers without wins in 2014, pole-sitter and six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is still seeking his first visit to victory lane this season, along with Matt Kenseth (who led the Sprint Cup series last season with seven wins), Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray among others.

* Kyle Busch wrecked his primary car in Saturday’s second practice session, forcing his team to bring out his back-up car. As a result, the younger Busch brother will start from the back of the field, even though he qualified seventh. Busch has finished third three different times but is still seeking his first win in the 600.

* Will the 600 turn into a fuel-mileage battle? Teams will typically attempt to go 45 laps per stop, meaning there will likely be at least nine pit stops during the course of the race. But some teams will try to stretch the fuel window, especially in the first half of the race, to assure they’ll have enough fuel so as not to have to worry about running out of gas in the closing laps.

* Sunday’s race marks the 12th event and the one-third point of the season. After Sunday’s race, there will be 14 left in the regular season to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

* Will Toyota start to get back on track? Chevrolet has won five races, Ford four and Toyota just two in the first 11 races of the season.

Yes, the Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race of the season and the racing can be both exciting and monotonous at times (particularly in the middle part of the event). But in a true test of man and machine, it doesn’t get better than what we’re going to see tonight.

But let’s not forget the biggest storyline of all, one that has absolutely nothing to do with tonight’s race: Please keep in your mind and prayers those who have fought for, continue to fight for you and those who made the supreme sacrifice so that we can enjoy things like NASCAR racing.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Verstappen doesn’t want F1 season to end after recent run of form

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Max Verstappen says he is not ready for the 2017 Formula 1 season to come to an end after enjoying a run of strong form through the closing stages of the campaign.

Verstappen endured a rocky run of form through to the end of the European season that saw him suffer a number of reliability issues and score just a single podium finish, taking third in China back in April.

However, the Dutchman has rallied to score more points than any other driver in the last five races, including victories in Malaysia and Mexico, as well as a podium finish in Japan.

Verstappen heads into next weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix chasing a third win of the year to sign off, but joked he does not want the season to end just as he’s got into a good groove.

“We will, of course, try and end the season with a strong result in Abu Dhabi,” Verstappen said. “Last year was actually quite a good race after skipping a pit stop following a spin at Turn 1, it was hard to manage the tires to the end of the race but we did it and finished fourth.

“I would say that my favorite part of the track is at Turns 2 and 3, the fast left, right. It’s also very cool driving underneath the hotel and racing in the darkness with all the lights.

“The final sector at Yas Marina is actually quite technical so you have to be really precise there, but it should also be our strongest part of the track.

“There are quite a few overtaking opportunities to make the race interesting, before the long straight at the hairpin and then at the end of the straight under braking for the next chicane section.

“Abu Dhabi is the last race on the calendar, but I don’t actually want the season to end. I’m really fired up at the moment and I just want to keep going.

“The nice thing will be to spend some time with friends and family over the winter break and then I will look ahead to January and get back into training before it all starts again.”