For all the deserved attention this Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway receives annually – for its celebration of our country’s military heroes and the challenge of mastering NASCAR’s longest race – it has presented a unique competitive situation for even the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series best.
Eight of the top-16 drivers in the current series standings – Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson – have never won a regular season race on the Charlotte oval.
Five more – Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer – have only one Charlotte trophy each despite four championships and 149 race wins among them.
Not only is this race the longest of the season (600 miles – 400 laps), it has more stages (four) and will be contested under late afternoon turning into nighttime conditions.
“It’s a hundred miles longer than any other race we run, which provides a challenge in and of itself,” said Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “On top of that, there is an extra stage, which gives us the opportunity to earn more points.
“The cars have less grip when the sun is out and they tend to slip and slide a lot more. As the sun goes down, the track gets more grip and we start going faster. That’s one of the very unique things about this race. What you have from a drive-ability and balance standpoint from the race car at the beginning of the race is not what you have at the end. You’re trying to figure out what it takes to get your car to win at the end and you have to be good at all facets because there are a lot of points to be made.”
There have been nine different Coca-Cola 600 winners in the last 10 years – only Kevin Harvick has won the race twice in that span. Austin Dillon won his first ever Monster Energy Series race in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Kyle Busch won his first ever series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway last Spring.
Martin Truex Jr. set an amazing mark of dominance – leading 392 of the 400 laps in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600. And Jimmie Johnson earned a fourth Coca-Cola 600 trophy in 2014 – most among this week’s field.
The opportunity to win in such a unique, extended format during one of the most celebrated racing weekends of the year is something that makes these drivers even more enthusiastic.
“With it being the 600, I love the tradition of the extra 100 miles and the toll that it puts on the cars, teams and drivers,” Dillon said. “It is genuinely a cool event and one of the marquee races in NASCAR.”
As Dillon indicated, even the talented younger drivers recognize the special circumstance it takes to hoist a trophy in this particular event.
“I think it’s a true test of your fitness level and mental capacity as a driver, not just for the heat but for the endurance it takes,” said Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who suffered a DNF in his Charlotte 600-mile debut last year.
“Team-wise there was a stretch for a few years that it was easier to make it 600 miles, but now with the performance as critical as it is, I think the cars are pushed more and the engines are pushed more, making it harder to go the full distance. I think this race really is a test of everything you have as the sport just gets more and more competitive.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!