Denny Hamlin looks for repeat performance in NASCAR’s longest race
Auto racing’s long day’s journey into night begins on the European continent and ends with NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It’s a feast for the motorsports enthusiast, from the Grand Prix of Monaco to the Indianapolis 500 to the Coke 600, which provides a perfect nightcap to the Sunday before Memorial Day.
The Charlotte race is a welcome home game for the race teams, in that it takes place in the nexus of NASCAR racing, within short driving distance of one of NASCAR’s corporate offices, most race shops and many drivers’ homes.
But before the competitors return to their beds on Sunday night, they will have endured 400 laps at the 1.5-mile track, where the race unfolds—often surprisingly—in the final 100 miles.
Last year, for example, Denny Hamlin was a late arrival in a race that required two overtimes and ran 13 laps beyond its scheduled distance. But as Hamlin put it, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was in the right place at the right time.
In a race of attrition that saw 17 of the 37 drivers fail to finish, Hamlin started from the pole but led just 15 laps. In the second overtime, he beat then-teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line by .014 seconds.
This year, Hamlin will have to beat the Hendrick Motorsports cars—notably William Byron and Kyle Larson, who have combined to win five of the first 13 NASCAR Cup Series races this year.
“I feel like our cars have definitely gotten better on the mile-and-a-half tracks,” said Hamlin, who is seeking his 50th victory in the series. “Obviously, we did win the last mile-and-a-half at Kansas, so I’m optimistic going into this weekend.
“We know we will have to beat the Hendrick guys if we want to have a shot, but I feel like we’ve been trending in the right direction on these types of tracks. We have as good a chance as anyone. We just have to execute throughout the race and be there at the end.”
As Hamlin said, the Hendrick drivers will provide formidable competition. Byron won the most recent points race, at Darlington, and Larson is fresh from a dominating triumph in the NASCAR All-Star Race last Sunday at North Wilkesboro.
Larson won the 600 in 2021, and teammate Chase Elliott won a 312-mile race on the Charlotte oval after NASCAR returned to competition during the pandemic in 2020.
Sunday’s race also marks the return of Hendrick driver Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Chevrolet. Bowman missed three races after sustaining a compression fracture of the spine in a sprint car event at West Burlington, Iowa.
Before his injury, Bowman led the Cup Series in average finish (10.3).
“It’s a boost for all of us to have Alex return to the No. 48 car this weekend at our home track,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “He’s still 17th in points, which says a lot about how well the team performed at the start of the year.
“Alex has worked hard to rehab the injury and come back strong, and I look for him to continue having a championship-caliber season.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING. ON MY REDNECK!