May 25, 2014, 5:27 PM EST
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 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
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