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The 600 Is A Big Race In More Ways Than Just One

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 25 2014

Driving 600 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend is no picnic. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Brian Cleary)

CONCORD, N.C. – In a way, the first-ever Memorial Day weekend 600-mile NASCAR race got off to a shotgun start back in 1960 as heavily-armed Charlotte Motor Speedway founders Bruton Smith, Curtis Turner, Turner’s brother Darnell and driver Bob Welborn confronted an obstinate contractor and his crew to persuade them to stop delaying the track construction process.

The construction crew found the gaping bores 12-gauge persuaders impossible to resist and the Coca-Cola 600, which will go green late this afternoon for the 55th time, was born.

A quick check among teams and drivers reveal that there are those in the CMS garages this weekend who kind of wish the contractor, one Owen Flowe – who had the gall to demand payments due – would have stood his ground and shut down construction.

But then again, there are also teams and drivers and fans who give Turner, Smith and the gunmen retro pats on the back.

Viewpoints on the race seem to be formed around the 600-mile distance of the Coke and the process of starting the race in daylight and then conducting most of it at night.

The distance, of course. was designed to go one hundred better than the other big American race of the weekend – the Indianapolis 500.

Clint Bowyer, who drives the No. 15 Toyota of Michael Waltrip Racing, was asked about racing 600 miles on what can be a very warm and humid time of the year in North Carolina.

“No, there is no reason to have any race that’s this long,” Bowyer said.  ”It’s a selling feature to have something longer than the rest – the biggest, baddest, longest race of the year – the most grueling. I

Sunset at Charlotte Motor Speedway is when the challenges intensify. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

understand the catch of having one race a year be drastically longer than the others, but that 400-mile race seems to be on these mile-and-a-half tracks a good number.”

Others like and dislike the 600 at the same time.

“I’ve had this race circled, somewhat dreading it,” Chip Ganassi Racing driver Jamie McMurray said. “I love the 400-mile races. I think that’s the perfect length for a NASCAR race. But I also think it’s cool that we have this marathon of an event.

“When I think back to this event, it’s always about trying to get enough food in your system that you’re not hungry or feel weak toward the end of the race.”

Youngster Brad Keselowski of Team Penske says driving 600 miles is cake. And, it also adds to the specialness that the original race organizers had in mind.

“Yeah, I like it,” Keselowski said. “This race kind of goes back to the history of this sport, being 600 miles. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think it’s a good thing to do every week, but I think it’s a good thing for here and acknowledging the history. There’s a lot to be said for it, I guess, to summarize. I enjoy it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run 600 miles and run it as fast as we do. I don’t know any other sport that runs, not at least on an oval, 600 miles.

“I guess you have some endurance racing with road courses, but usually they switch drivers and do all that stuff, so I’m not sure of any other sport or motorsport that does 600 miles straight in four-and-a-half to five hours of competition for one athlete. I think it’s probably one of the most difficult challenges in all of sports, but it’s one that I embrace and I really like.”

Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing was asked last Thursday if his mind wandered during the race, which can last more than four hours.

“That is a good question,” he said. “I think for me it’s just about making laps and trying to remember exactly what you did in that corner last time. It never wanders off of racing for sure just for the fact that

Night time can be the wrong time at CMS. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

unless a cable falls out of the sky or something falls in front of your car then you have something else to think about. All in all it’s just trying to relay that information back to the crew as much as you can to try to be as good a piece of information as you can to keep up with the track.”

Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Cup champion and a three-time winner in the 600, said, “A 500-mile race is already long. And now you’ve got 100 more to work on it. You’ve just got to keep your head in the game and focus on being in the game longer.”

Most of the concern for the race, however, centers on its day and night character. It’s a concern for drivers but also for crews as they attempt to come up with cures for the setup problems that go along with changes in track temperatures.

“As you go through the temperature changes,” Harvick said, “it’s going to be a lot warmer than it was last week so you kind of have to take that with a grain of salt as to what we did at the All-Star race because of the much warmer temperatures. We may not even every get to the coolest temperature Sunday night is probably still going to be warmer than the warmest it was last week. You just have to keep up with the car and always try and stay on the lead lap through the beginning part of the race knowing that your car is going to need to handle a lot different as you get to night. It’s an interesting challenge.”

But so big of a challenge that competitors should attack history and tradition by tinkering with it? That’s a no-brainer – even for a driver who grew up a half a world away.

“I like the length,” Australian native Marcos Ambrose of Richard Petty Motorsports said. “I like the fact that it is different and the endurance factor certainly comes into play for the 600, so I like it. I don’t think we need to change it. We used to have a couple other big mileage races back in the day. This is the last one standing and I think it’s a bit of NASCAR history that should remain.”

Even though the days of the 600 being one of the unofficial NASCAR crown jewel races have faded into obscurity, the Memorial Day classic remains one of the events after which racers still lust.

“This is definitely a race I’d love to win,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports said. “I want to win a point’s race here so bad because we live just right down the road. I’ve been coming here since I’ve been a kid. I remember sitting up in the press box watching qualifying for the ’83 race, and that was probably one of my first real memories of going to a Cup event. Once they built those condos over there in One and Two, we never missed a race and we watched a lot of them over there in the mid-80s and early-80s.

“We watched a lot of races over on the last corner of the road course up on the hill with most of our family and all the Eurys and everybody. We just always came here, and it’s frustrating that I haven’t won a race here other than the All-Star event. We’ve had some good cars but not anywhere near good enough. There are a lot of other race tracks where I think, ‘Man we were really close’ or the car was fast enough. But I’ve never really had a car here that I thought we had it, we were walking away and we gave it away. We always seem to get outrun here but hopefully this weekend we can change that.”

Adding to the challenge of the race is the re-surfacing job the track under went in 2006. Some drivers said this week that it has yet to come in all the way.

All things considered, the goal after 585 or so miles will be near the front of the field.

“Unless the two on the front row take each other out in Turn 1,” Bowyer said, “then it could possibly be won by somebody other than the front row, but yes. If it comes down to 10 laps to go in some sort of deal then somebody up front will win. It’s just the way it is on these really fast race tracks like this. There’s a long road to hoe before you get down to something like that. The guy that’s going to win this race in my opinion is going to be the one that’s good on the long run and can keep their car turning well for quite some time.”

And the good news for the winner will that they won’t need a shot gun to get their purse money as the 600 has become one big huge event.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 25 2014
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