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Six-hundred, Schmix-Hundred: Drivers Enjoy The Coke

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 24 2009
The Coca-Cola 600 will start in the bright of day and finish in the dark of night at Lowe's Motor Speedway today. It is NASCAR's longest race. (Photo by HHP/Erik Perel - Pool/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The Coca-Cola 600 will start in the bright of day and finish in the dark of night at Lowe's Motor Speedway today. It is NASCAR's longest race. (Photo by HHP/Erik Perel - Pool/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Concord, N.C. – There was a time when a 600-mile NASCAR race was a grueling test of man and machine.

Now with drivers more fit and cars essentially bullet-proof, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is in some respects just a race with another 100 miles to run.

Yes, most drivers hydrate themselves in the hours and days leading up to the race, but most are so physically fit that the added miles aren’t that much of a challenge. Many ran Saturday’s  Carquest Auto Parts 300 as a warm-up.

Matt Kenseth said the best way to prepare for the longer race, besides the usual fluid intake, is to get ready mentally.

“You try not to psych yourself out too much about it being 600 miles instead of 500,” he said. You almost think of it as just a race. We know it’s a little bit longer, so it’s more like pacing yourself.

“Instead of jogging around the block one time, I’m going to jog around the block two or three times – so maybe the first couple, take it easy – and that’s part of the mental process.

“It’s a long event, pace ourselves and don’t burn up too much energy or concentration in the first part of that thing.”

Tony Stewart is often among the contenders when the checkered flag flies at Lowe’s, even though his only win there came in a 500 miler in 2003.

It’s no secret that he’s not the garage leader in fitness, but still he’s usually performing well on past the 500-mile mark.

“If you have looked at me recently, I am sure you have realized I am going to be on the cover of GQ any day now,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have a special race-day diet or anything.

“I am one of those guys, whatever I am in the mood for. I might go to the concession stand and get lunch before a race. I’m probably not the biggest health food nut in the group.”

Kyle Busch said he doesn’t hydrate himself before the race, just as a precaution against making an unscheduled pit stop, so to speak.

“It’s such a long race you don’t get the opportunity to go to the bathroom,” he said. “I won’t hydrate at all until I get in the car, probably.”

What he would like, at times during the 400-lap run, is something to eat.

“If I could get a hamburger to fit in the helmet, I might have that,” he said.

Even race strategies aren’t that different any more for the sport’s longest race.

Jeff Burton, the 600 winner back in 1999 and 2001, said that with the improved reliability of the cars, the strategy part of the race is less of a factor than it was say 15 years ago.

“Today you don’t have that, ‘Let’s hold back and wait and save our stuff and all that,’” he said. “That mentality is no longer. The way our cars are today, the brakes, the engines, the gears, the transmissions, the springs, the shocks, all that stuff there is no, ‘Well let’s just ride around and save our car…’

“In many ways it’s become more of a sprint race than it used to be if that makes sense. How hard you drive the cars is harder today. The percentage that you’re trying to get out of your car is harder today on Lap 200 than it was then. It was viewed as,’Oh my God it’s 600 miles’ and now its viewed as it’s 600 miles, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s a complete different mindset. It is another 100 miles but it’s not, I’m going to blow up because I said all this but the reliability rate has come up so much in 15 years it’s not the strategy that it used to be.”

Jeff Gordon said the extra distance gives someone who has a top-five car a chance to try some late-race pit strategy and pull off a victory. It was a two-tire call by crew chief Ray Evernham that gave Gordon his first Cup win, over Rusty Wallace in the 600 back in 1994.

One thing they all agree about is that the added distance does set the race apart from other events. As Kurt Busch says, the extra 100 miles, plus the fact that it starts in the daytime and ends at night, gives the race the feel of a marathon.

“The race sets itself apart, and it’s because of the length,” he said.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 24 2009
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