CONCORD, N.C. — Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, winners of five of the last seven Sprint Cup Series points races, believe they can continue Joe Gibbs Racing's recent dominance and win the Coca-Cola 600.
Doing so is going to require beating four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is pretty darn good at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson has long considered this suburban Charlotte track, located just minutes away from Hendrick Motorsports' home base, his own personal playground. He's got six career victories here, four of them in NASCAR's longest race of the season.
And based on how he ran in last week's All-Star race, the entire field should be frightened by the No. 48. Johnson easily led 56 of the 100 laps and probably would have won if not for a quirky format that required a four-tire pit stop before the final sprint to the finish.
Lucky for everyone, Johnson didn't bring that same Chevrolet back for Sunday.
"It's a different car so we're sitting here thinking we wish we had the other car," Johnson said after Saturday's two practice sessions. "The other car seemed to respond a little better to changes, while this one seems a little numb to change right now.
"We'll see. It's OK. I don't know, it's decent. I think we need to be a little better."
That's enough to give a glimmer of hope to everybody else, particularly Hamlin and Busch, who have hit a stride since NASCAR in March ditched the despised rear wing to return to the more traditional spoiler. Johnson won the final race with the wing, and no Hendrick Motorsports driver has been to Victory Lane since.
Hamlin has three wins since the switch, and Busch has two. Both were in contention to win last weekend's All-Star race until aggressive driving between the pair led to a wrecked car for Busch, while Hamlin faded to fourth.
"I think we have a great shot at being able to run competitively this week and try to win here at the Coca-Cola 600, a race that is on my list of races to win," Busch said. "I feel like we had a fast car last weekend, which will translate into this weekend. I feel like we can really capitalize on our season and try to keep strong momentum going."
He got a good boost Saturday with a win in the Nationwide Series race, but that likely won't translate in the 600, a race that begins in the day and ends under the lights and often turns into an event of attrition. The stark reality of the race's difficulty made for a busy day in the garage Saturday, as teams tried a variety of different adjustments to prepare for Sunday.
Hamlin declared his car "unbelievable" after just a few laps, then spent much of the day on top of his team hauler watching practice. His final run of the day wasn't as good as he hoped, but his No. 11 crew didn't want too much track time.
"We didn't run much practice just to try to save as many laps on our engine as possible," Hamlin said. "Right now, we're pretty confident that what we have right there should be good at least until halfway. Then we'll just fine-tune it from there."
Flying under the radar are Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr., the top three qualifiers for Sunday.
Kurt Busch is coming off his $1 million win in last weekend's All-Star race, while Truex, winner of the Sprint Showdown, led Saturday's final practice session.
"The interesting thing about Charlotte is that it's always been a difficult track for me. I've never really had a car that's been very good here," Truex said after Saturday's practice session. "Today, our car has been really, really good. It's got great speed in it and its pretty good on the long runs."
Totally off the radar is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who saw the bottom fall out on his season at this track last year, when he ran 40th in the last race before crew chief Tony Eury Jr.'s firing. A full year later, he returned to Charlotte in a monthlong slump and qualified 24th.
He also struggled in practice until hitting on something right at the end, but said he's still lacking the speed necessary to feel confident about Sunday.
But Earnhardt insisted his spirits are up and he's not discouraged about the direction of his No. 88 team.
"I feel pretty good. We're working hard," he said. "We've got a pretty good attitude considering what we've been through. It's not progressing as fast as I want it to, but things are going good enough to want to keep getting after it."