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The Longest Race Paves The Path to Indy

Isn’t winter supposed to be the season of discontent?

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series appears headed for a long, hot summer. Tensions are rising as competitors begin to position themselves for the Chase and adjust to a new point system. Drivers are squabbling, on track and off. Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya traded licks at Darlington, and a week later, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick behaved boorishly at Dover.

Next up? The longest race.

Charlotte Motor Speedway carved its niche by creating what was originally the World 600 and has now been for many years the Coca-Cola 600. The distinction of being stock car racing’s longest race – 400 laps around the 1.5-mile track – was originally a means whereby NASCAR could offer some token resistance to the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. For many years, the 600 was run on Sunday and the 500 on Monday, Memorial Day proper. In the early 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for NASCAR drivers – Bobby and Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough among them – to compete at Indy long before the stock cars ever visited.

Endurance is no longer the issue it once was, in part because today’s drivers are well conditioned and in part because the cars themselves are much more comfortable than they were in the sweltering 1960s.
But the grueling distance is still what sets the Coca-Cola 600 apart.

No other race in NASCAR creates such an ebb and flow. The race begins with the sun up and ends with artificial light glistening in the glossy finishes of the cars circling the track. Most everyone agrees that the track surface changes at CMS more than at any other NASCAR track, and the climate changes aggravate the situation.

“Sometimes the winning car, at the beginning of the race, is almost undriveable,” said Jimmie Johnson, who has won the 600 three times. “You just have to nurse it along and not make mistakes.”

“It’s probably my favorite race of the season,” said Matt Kenseth. “A lot of times we excel in the longer races, so I look forward to that.”

Kenseth, whose only 600 victory was 11 years ago, seems positioned to win again. The season is developing a pattern as repeat winners emerge. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Kenseth have all won twice. Carl Edwards leads the point standings and is coming off a victory in the Sprint All-Star Race on the same track.

But the All-Star Race is only a fourth as long as the 600, which rewards patience, the kind displayed by a Johnson, a Kenseth, a Jeff Gordon or a Mark Martin. Upsets occur as a result of strategy, as when fuel became the primary decider of races won by Casey Mears in 2007 and David Reutimann in 2009. The latter was rain-shortened.

There’s another tie between Charlotte and Indy. Once the Coca-Cola 600 is completed, the way is cleared for the Brickyard 400. By almost any measure, NASCAR’s three biggest events are the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Coca-Cola 600. Some might throw in Darlington’s Southern 500 on the basis of history and degree of difficulty.

That leaves Indianapolis as the site of the lone remaining premium event. Once the checkered flag falls on Sunday night in Charlotte, the Brickyard 400, on July 31, becomes the beacon, casting a certain light across all the less prestigious races in the interim.

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