After running the all-star race this past weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it's time for the Sprint Cup Series to get back to the point -- points racing that is.
Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 is not only the 12th points-paying race this season but the longest and perhaps most grueling event of the year in NASCAR's premier series.
Scheduled to start in the late afternoon and conclude at nighttime, the 600- mile race at Charlotte is physically and mentally challenging for drivers.
"You can't go into this race thinking, 'Oh, we're just going to cruise at the beginning and wait for the track to come to us'," said Hendrick Motorsports driver and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. "That used to exist, but it doesn't anymore. You start charging from the drop of the green flag."
Charlotte, a 1.5-mile racetrack, has been the site of several firsts for Gordon during his career, including his inaugural Sprint Cup race win (May 1994) and maiden pole position (October 1993). He also won the 600-mile event here consecutively from 1997-98. Gordon's fifth and most recent win at Charlotte came in the 500-miler in October 2007.
"The (Coca-Cola 600) starts during the day, and the track changes a lot when the sun goes down," Gordon said. "You have to be ready to stay on top of the adjustments - almost get ahead of them instead of getting behind on them. It's a very long race, and I like long races because it suits my style. But the car has to be right."
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion and Gordon's teammate at Hendrick, won the all-star race for a record fourth time this past Saturday.
If Johnson takes the checkered flag for the 600-mile race this weekend, he will become the first driver to win both Cup events at Charlotte during the month of May twice in his career. Johnson won the Charlotte double in 2003.
Other drivers who have won the 600-mile event and the all-star race at Charlotte in the same season include: Darrell Waltrip (1985), Davey Allison (1991), Dale Earnhardt (1993), Gordon (1997), Kasey Kahne (2008) and Kurt Busch (2010).
Johnson had been the most dominant driver at Charlotte, finishing no worse than third here from May 2003 to October 2006. He is the only driver who has won three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s (2003-05). In fact, he recorded a season sweep at Charlotte during the '04 and '05 seasons. His most recent win at this track came in the fall of 2009.
Since that last win, Johnson has struggled somewhat at Charlotte, finishing 28th or worse in three of the last six races here. He won last year's all-star event but finished 11th in the 600-mile race one week later. His teammate, Kahne, won the 600.
"We've had decent finishes, been competitive and led laps, but the track is just so different now than it was (before it was repaved prior to the 2006 Coca-Cola 600), and we had it scienced out," Johnson said. "We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what the adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork, didn't matter the year, just every single time. It's not that way anymore."
Johnson enters this race with a comfortable 44-point lead in the standings. He won the Feb. 24 season-opening Daytona 500 and then scored his second victory of the year on April 7 at Martinsville.
"If I were to pick an area we need to improve on, it would be the 1.5-miles," Johnson said. "We're not bad. We're still getting good finishes. But we don't have that magic right now. I'm very happy to have this big points lead."
Carl Edwards is currently second in points, while his former Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, is third (-59).
"Mentally, I think all of us have to prepare a little bit for the extra distance," Edwards said in regards to the Coca-Cola 600. "It is a grueling event. If the temperatures are high the whole weekend, everyone starts the event hot and worn out already.
"So 600 miles, you can look at it and say it's only 20 percent longer than the other race we run at Charlotte, the 500 miler, but there's something about that last 100 miles that makes it a lot more mentally tough."
Kenseth, who is in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, leads the series with three wins this year, including a victory earlier this month in the Southern 500 at Darlington. He finished ninth in the all-star race.
"I'm looking forward to the weekend," Kenseth said. "The 600 is probably my favorite race of the year. Last weekend (in the all-star race) didn't go exactly as planned."
Kenseth's first career Cup win came in May 2000 at Charlotte.
Forty-four teams are entered in the Coca-Cola 600. Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, is scheduled to make his 700th consecutive start in the series.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, May 26. Race: Coca-Cola 600. Site: Charlotte Motor Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 6 p.m. ET. Laps: 400. Miles: 600. 2012 Winner: Kasey Kahne. Television: FOX. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.