NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 was once a grueling endurance test, a marathon of attrition in which step one toward Victory Lane was making sure your engine didn’t blow. But despite being the sport’s longest race by 100 miles, the four-hour marathon that blends into the night isn’t the DNF land mine it used to be.
Let’s compare. A little over 20 years ago, Ken Schrader had the best car in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600 only to blow his motor down the stretch. That was part of 14 DNFs spread over 42 cars – one-third of the field – in a race that produced a first-time winner, Bobby Labonte. Just three cars wound up on the lead lap in an event that produced only seven cautions despite its longevity.
Last season, Labonte’s former organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, captured the Coca-Cola 600 trophy again with Carl Edwards. But Edwards presided over a race that saw 39 of its 43 cars make it to the finish line. Of those four that wound up in the garage, just three were due to engine failure (and none by a Chase-contending team.) A whopping 16 cars still ended up on the lead lap despite a similar number of caution flags compared to 1995 (eight this time around).
The evolution of technology, it seems has changed the game. While the extra 100 miles certainly produces a mental test for the driver, providing an edge to the veterans who have been through that type of grueling marathon, crew chiefs are breathing a little easier these days. Chances are if your favorite stumbles down the stretch on Sunday it’ll be his own fault, or perhaps poor strategy, instead of a random piece that broke in half.
2016 Coca-Cola 600
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, NC)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joey Logano
On Memorial Day Weekend a year ago, Logano and his Team Penske No. 22 Ford were sitting pretty. The youngster already had a Daytona 500 win to this credit, sat third in the standings and was looked at as a championship contender. This year, he’s gotten off to a bit of a slow start, leading just 113 laps to date and sitting winless, eighth in the standings. But Logano prevailed during the sport’s great exhibition last weekend, the Sprint All-Star Race, amidst confusing rules and a hard-fought battle with Kyle Larson. That produced momentum, resulting in a front-row starting spot (second) for Sunday’s race. And did I mention Logano won the last race held at Charlotte in the fall?
Honorable mention goes to the pole sitter, Martin Truex Jr., who had the best car at the sport’s last intermediate track race (Kansas) and is anxious to get that first win of 2016. Both drivers aren’t listed in the fantasy section this week but are great alternate picks for Sunday’s roster.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
Charlotte was once called Lowe’s Motor Speedway and for good reason: Johnson was dominant there. His seven career victories include three Coca-Cola 600s in a row at one point (2003-05) along with a fourth added in 2014. But Johnson ran 40th in this race last year and enters the weekend sputtering. He’s run 22nd, 17th and 25th in the last three points-paying events, was a virtual non-factor down the stretch in the All-Star Race, and caused a multi-car wreck at Dover after a weird transmission issue where the car stuck in gear. Hendrick Motorsports appears a step, maybe two behind Joe Gibbs Racing and they won’t make up that ground until their flagship team, the No. 48, gets back on track.
After extensive deliberation and voting Wednesday NASCAR’s 2017 Hall of Fame Class was announced. Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons will be enshrined in a January ceremony at the Hall in Charlotte. Former Martinsville Speedway owner H. Clay Earles was honored with the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions in NASCAR.
Among the five, three are car owners (Hendrick, Childress and Parks). Martin, the sport’s perennial runner-up, finished second in the championship standings five times and was second in the infamous 2007 Daytona 500. He’s not the bridesmaid this time, though joining a class where 18 Cup car owner championships are represented by the trio above along with a 1973 Cup Series driver’s title won by Parsons. Parsons, who later went on to have a successful broadcasting career with ESPN/ABC, NBC, and TNT, was a former taxi driver who went on to win 21 times at the Cup level, including the 1975 Daytona 500.
Just four months into the new rules package NASCAR is tweaking with aerodynamics once again. Another package will be tested during two regular season races, Michigan in two weeks and Kentucky in early July. The changes reduce the spoiler height from 3.5 to 2.5 inches along with a reduction in splitter size to try and reduce downforce and increase passing in the turns. By all accounts, major teams have caught up on the offseason adjustments and their progress may have produced a more mundane event held at Kansas earlier this month. Despite the difficulty of making in-season rule changes NASCAR is trying to remain vigilant with the realization less grip is promoting more exciting competition.
No NASCAR drivers will participate in the vaunted “Indy double” this season. The 100th edition of that open-wheel race will run with minimal NASCAR connections. In the past, drivers like Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, and the now-retired John Andretti were among those to try 1,100 miles of racing in one day. Brian Vickers, who subbed for Stewart earlier this year, was seeking an Indy ride but sponsorship did not materialize for the event.
Celebrity Sighting: New Hall of Famer Mark Martin will drive the pace car before Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. Martin, who last won the big race in 2002, will be making his first public appearance since Wednesday’s announcement of his upcoming induction.
NASCAR By The Numbers
Driver to win from the pole this season in 12 races. Carl Edwards was the only one to accomplish the feat at Bristol earlier in the spring.
Cars that failed to finish at Dover. Only Talladega (12) produced a higher number of DNFs so far this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Defending Coca-Cola 600 winner Carl Edwards may not come in running on all eight cylinders after getting spun out at Dover two weeks ago. But in the past nine Charlotte races he’s finished no lower than 11th, including that 2015 win in the sport’s 600-miler, and a whopping six consecutive races with one lap led. That bonus point could make the difference for you when it comes down to a league nail-biter at the end of your segment.
Once upon a time, Charlotte was one of Kevin Harvick’s worst tracks but the tune has changed significantly since an alignment with Stewart-Haas Racing. Since moving to the No. 4 car in 2014, Harvick has raced here six times, coming up with two victories and no finish worse than ninth. It’s become perhaps the most dependable track to start him these days outside of Phoenix.
Jamie McMurray wrecked in last week’s All-Star Race and hasn’t shown a ton of speed thus far in Charlotte. That said, he’s earned seven straight top-20 finishes at this track during points-paying events and it’s an oval that produced his first ever Cup Series victory back in 2002. With teammate Kyle Larson red hot lately it’s only a matter of time in this team-driven environment before that information slips over into the No. 1 camp and significantly helps them. I think he’s a safe pick for Sunday.
Don’t trust past results when looking at whether to start Trevor Bayne. The Roush Fenway Racing driver hasn’t earned a career top 10 at Charlotte but his No. 6 Ford is suddenly showing speed and taking major steps forward each week toward becoming a contender. Winning the first segment of the Sprint Showdown last week, Bayne showed a little aggression and is gaining confidence with better setups. He’s a good dark horse selection to score a top 10 if you need a week off from counting on superstar rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch all have 6/1 odds according to the Sporting News. Defending Coca-Cola 600 champion Edwards stands at 8/1.
What I Think
Martin Truex, Jr. had the best car a few weeks ago, plagued at Kansas by a loose wheel. It’s about time the No. 78 team stops shooting themselves in the foot and this 600-miler has a tendency to produce surprise winners. I’m going Truex.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)