Sunday’s running of the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the crown jewels that makes up the Sprint Cup schedule. It’s hard to make an argument on what makes the race so popular, but I do believe that you have to look at three factors that definitely make it one of the best stops on the entire schedule.
At the top of the list is the fact that the race is held in Charlotte (Concord), right in the center of everything NASCAR, which will also include the sport’s official Hall of Fame once construction is completed. When a fan travels to Charlotte he can spend a couple of days visiting all of the race shops located within easy driving distance of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. A race fan can easily turn a trip to the race into a vacation when visiting the area.
Also, high on the list of making the 600 one of the best stops on the schedule is that it is held during the Memorial Day weekend. The race has a late starting time and getting out of the parking lot afterward may not take place until long after the midnight hour on Sunday, but the majority of the fans in attendance have the luxury of having the next day off from work. That is a huge bonus when you are working your way at a snail’s pace back to I-85 or I-77 and then looking at several hours of driving before pulling into your own parking lot at your house.
Those reasons alone are enough to make the 600 one of the most attractive stops on the schedule, but the real drawing card to the hard-core race fan has always been that extra 100 miles of racing that has in years past ruined many a driver’s dream of finding his way to victory lane. It’s as if when the race hits the magical 500-mile point strange things begin to happen. I have heard drivers say they suddenly start feeling strange vibrations and noises as the car is made to go farther than it has had to at any other stop on the schedule.
It is a long and demanding race made harder by the fact that the heat in May can oftentimes resemble a July day in the South and then the race ends under the lights after the temperatures have cooled down. The changing temperatures force drivers and crew chiefs to chase their cars all race long until it’s time for the last 100 miles when the pace of the race often demands that your car be at it very best in order to survive the rather long sprint to the finish line.
In years past it has been easy to pick a favorite for this race. All you had to do was look no further than Hendrick Motor Sports, which happens to be located just a couple of miles from the track. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson and his Lowe’ssponsored Chevrolet have five wins at the track – including three wins in the 600 – making him one of the favorites, but none of those wins has come in the Car of Tomorrow.
The only driver at Hendrick’s that has had any consistency in the COT has been Dale Jr., who has eight top-10 finishes on the season that put him in third in the standings. Teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon are also in the top 10, but their seasons have lacked the kind of consistency that makes them a threat at this time for the title. The fourth Hendrick driver, Casey Mears, is the defending champion of the 600, but he has struggled this season with only two top-10 finishes, which has him in the 26th points position.
Since Hendrick doesn’t have the clear-cut favorite this season, it might be time for either Joe Gibbs Racing or Jack Roush Racing to make a trip to victory lane. Both are multi-team operations with more than one driver capable of crossing the finish line first.
Gibbs has the enormously popular Kyle Busch leading his three-team assault to the checkers, while Roush’s Carl Edwards seems to now have cemented his position as the flag bearer for his owner’s five-team approach to the sport. Those two may be leaders of their pack but both organizations have other drivers just as capable of holding the trophy after a long day and night of racing.
Pit notes: The sport said goodbye to one of its cornerstones Saturday night when Dale Jarrett crawled out of the car after the all-star race. The secondgeneration champion is calling it quits after winning 32 races and $59 million in a career that started full time in 1987.
Race Preview – Event: Coca-Cola 600. Track: Lowe’s Motor Speedway (1.5-mile trioval with 24 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: May 25, 5:45 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: PRN. Defending champion: Casey Mears.