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Plenty of Brickyard ties to NASCAR's longest race this Sunday

When the checkered flag drops on the 96th Indianapolis 500, the countdown to the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard begins. And the next stop on the road to NASCAR’s annual visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 26-29 is the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

And for several drivers with strong ties to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 600-mile race is NASCAR’s long journey into night.

Let’s start with two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind. Two times in his career, Stewart has competed in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 the same day. In 1999, he finished ninth in the Indy 500 and fourth in the 600. In 2001, Stewart was sixth in the Indy 500 and third in the 600.

But since he began concentrating on NASCAR, he was won three Cup titles, including 2002, 2005 and 2011, when he pulled off dramatic five wins in 10 races in the Chase for the Championship. He tied Carl Edwards in points after the final race but easily won the Sprint Cup title based on tiebreaker of most victories, as Stewart had five wins to Edwards’ one.

Stewart will watch the 96th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday before strapping into his Chevrolet with the No. 14 – a number he chose from his racing idol, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.

A win at Charlotte in the 600 would be a great way for Stewart to prepare for his trip to the Brickyard at the end of July.

“Any time you win a race at Charlotte, it’s big,” Stewart said. “It’s a speedway with a lot of history and, obviously, the Coke 600 is a huge event. I’m a big fan of shorter races nowadays, but the 600 is truly a special event, with it being on Memorial Day weekend and the history of the Coke 600, when it was known as the World 600. There’s just a lot of tradition that surrounds the month of May in Charlotte. So, this is a big race. This is an important race to win.”

Stewart has one win, six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 26 starts at Charlotte but has never won in the 600.

The Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400 have special meaning to Jeff Gordon, who grew up in Pittsboro, Ind., – about 20 miles west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway off Interstate 74.

Gordon scored the first of his 85 Cup wins in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. His second Cup win may have been even bigger as he won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in NASCAR’s first-ever trip to the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Gordon enters the 600 24th in Sprint Cup points, so a win would be important if Gordon has any hopes of making this year’s Chase for the Championship because the final two positions in the 12-driver lineup are wild card entries based on race victories for drivers position 11-20 in points after the cutoff race for the Chase at Richmond in September.

It’s been 18 years since Gordon’s first Cup win in the 600 back in 1994, and he remembers just how long it felt.

"I thought we were getting close to the end of the race, and they told me we weren't even halfway yet,” Gordon said. “That race felt a thousand miles. It just seemed so, so long. These days I've learned you don't ask until you know the end of the race is near. This track is very temperature-sensitive - it always has been. We'll start the race guessing what the balance (of the car) needs to be during the daytime. But when the sun goes down, it changes drastically. You have to be prepared for those changes without getting too far behind at the beginning, so it's a challenge. But the biggest challenge for me is just trying to manage my fluid intake and getting something in my stomach. You can get really dehydrated in this race if you're not careful.”

Gordon hopes he is ready to end his recent streak of bad luck that has plagued him this season.

"We experimented with some things last week, and we'll definitely explore more of that set-up (we used in the All-Star event) this week,” Gordon said. “It showed good speed at times. We just need to get the balance a little bit better. We need points and we need wins, so the 600 is far more important to us (than the All-Star race). It's a long race Sunday, and a lot can happen. And I think that suits us. I think a long race is one of our strong points."

Gordon has five wins, 16 top-fives and 20 top-10 finishes in 38 starts. He has won the 600 three times in his career (1994, ’95 and ’97).

Johnson has an incredible six wins, 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including three-straight Coca-Cola 600 wins from 2003-2005. He swept both Cup races at Charlotte in 2004 and 2005. His last Charlotte win came in the October race in 2009.

 “It is a very long race on a tough track,” Johnson said of the 600. “It’s not only from the driver’s perspective, but the teams go through a lot to get prepared for that race.  Staying alert and focused, properly hydrated all the things that the driver has to go through so do the guys that go over the wall.  They change a lot of tires during that race.  It’s a very tough event on everyone but I think everybody enjoys it.  I know my guys do.  I know I do.  I love that challenge.  I love it especially when you are going to victory lane.  I hope to do that again.

“Just that weekend with all the racing that takes place worldwide that weekend.  It’s Memorial Day, there is a very special part in me both of my grandfathers’ served.  That means something.  We are in all of our backyards.  Hendrick Motorsports is literally a mile-and-a-half, 2 miles away.  I start stacking up a lot of cool reasons to win that race, and I hope to do it.”

Kevin Harvick won the 2003 Brickyard 400 and last year’s Coca-Cola 600. He enters Sunday night’s race eighth in the standings.

 “I think (the Coca-Cola 600) is a historic race in our sport,” Harvick said. “It’s the ultimate test of car, team, driver, engines and every part on the car. The sport is not all about just running a 250-mile race, it’s about making your car last. It’s more than just having a fast car and lining them up and running a short race. It’s really about the attrition of the whole night and surviving that. As things change through the night, you have to keep up with the race track and if your car won’t run then you’re done. NASCAR needs a race like this because those are the types of things the sport was built on.

“The coolest part about winning the Coke 600 to me was walking up to the top (of Smith Tower), seeing all the fans who’d hung out in The Speedway Club and being able to drink a few Budweisers with them afterward. The fan base we have in this area is very loyal, and they’ve been here for a long time. Seeing those folks in The Speedway Club was the coolest part.”

Paul Menard spent his boyhood years at the Indianapolis 500 watching the cars owned by his father, John, compete on the race track. The younger Menard finally took his father to victory lane at Indianapolis last year in the Brickyard 400.

He is 13th in the Cup standings entering the 600.

“We’ve wrecked a couple of times (during the Coca-Cola 600) and had some parts failures before, so it’s just one of those deals with any race, everything has to go right to get a good finish. And we just haven’t had things go right. We’ve had speed. We’ve qualified well and raced well; we just haven’t finished. It’s obviously cooler at night than during the day; so once you’re in the car you don’t really know whether it’s 400 miles or 600 miles. You’re just kind of doing your deal. Every track is so different. You know, you run 500 laps at Martinsville, and it’s 250 miles; but it feels just as long as a 500-mile race at Texas or somewhere. So it’s all relative, I guess. But you just kind of take it as it comes. You sit in the car and you’re always thinking about what you need to do and time goes by pretty quick.”

Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., is a graduate of Purdue University – about an hour’s drive from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He arrives at Charlotte 14th in points and has a special feeling for Memorial Day because his car is sponsored by the U.S. Army.

“Memorial Day is special, and I’ve told you before that I took for granted what all branches of the military do for us before I got a chance to meet the soldiers and being able to understand what they do and the stories that they have to wear their colors is an honor to wear that Army camouflage to represent Army Strong – that mental, physical and emotional strength a strength like no other,” Newman said. “And I can only represent it. Only an Army soldier can be that. I’m doing my best to represent the colors and those people – over a million people that fight for our freedom each and every day. I’m proud to represent them. It’s a little bit cooler than just an ordinary product sponsor.”

Jeff Burton is a two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner but has never won at the Brickyard. But he has a special appreciation for the role auto racing plays in the Memorial Day holiday.

“I have been more involved over the last few years with veteran affairs and trying to help,” Burton said. “I have a whole other appreciation of what it means to be a veteran and what Memorial Day is actually all about. Through those associations, it’s hard for me to not look at it differently because a lot of people unselfishly gave their lives. And that’s a heck of a thing to say. Some people raised their hands and fought for their country and some people were asked and didn’t really want to go, but went and lost their lives. You tend in everyday life to look over all that stuff. When you get to the nuts and bolts of it, Memorial Day is a really special weekend and day, and I think on top of that it’s the best race weekend of the year.

“You look at that Sunday and there is the F1 race in Monaco, the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. That’s three iconic races on the same day, on Memorial Day weekend, and to me that’s as good as it gets.”

Juan Pablo Montoya blistered the field to win the Indianapolis 500 in his only attempt in 2000. He finished second in his first Brickyard 400 in 2007. Montoya has never won a race at Charlotte.

“I was pretty happy with the way our Target Chevy handled in the Showdown race last weekend, so I’m feeling pretty good about this weekend,” Montoya said. “We used the 40-lap race Saturday night try and learn some more information for the point’s race. The car had speed and we were running right up front till I got a bit of damage. I’ll tell you, these guys are working hard every day to try and find that something extra that is going to get us back up front. I’ve never meant a more determined group of guys and hopefully that’ll show in this weekend’s race. Also, we’ll have a pretty cool Target paint scheme to show off for the NASCAR Unites campaign.”

Montoya’s teammate is Jamie McMurray, who won both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in 2010 to give team owner Chip Ganassi the only sweep of the three major races the same season. Ganassi won the Indianapolis 500 that year with Dario Franchitti.

McMurray has one win at CMS, but that came in October 2010 – not in the 600.

“This is a really busy week for us as we always have a lot going on with sponsor commitments and appearances, so it is always fun to see everyone in town for this race,” McMurray said. “There always seems to be a bit more excitement around this race when we are here at home.   Charlotte is one of my favorite race tracks.  It has been a really good track for me, personally.  I have been fortunate enough to win here a couple of times, including my first Sprint Cup win ever in 2002.  We used the Sprint Showdown race last weekend to try and learn a few things to make our Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet better for the Coca-Cola 600, so I am looking forward to getting back to the track on Thursday and getting ready for this weekend.  I also really look forward to all the cool stuff that Charlotte Motor Speedway does to celebrate Memorial Day in honor of all the men and women who have made sacrifices for our country and to recognize all the current military members that serve and protect our freedoms.”

And then there is Danica Patrick, who made her name in the Indianapolis 500 and will compete in her first Coca-Cola 600. It will be her third Sprint Cup start.

“I think Darlington was one of those weekends that could have confirmed opinions or sort of developed new ones for people and I think it was more on the ‘develop new ones’ than it was to confirm if someone didn’t think I was doing a good job,” Patrick said. “I think just the difficulty of the race, being there for the first time and putting a double-header on top of it in addition to the Nationwide race – I went into it basically knowing it was going to be difficult. I was plenty worried and disappointed after the first practice in Cup because I was last. A lot of people said ‘good job,’ and I appreciate it, because let’s face it: I had a 12th and a 31st. But I appreciate it, and it means that a lot of people with experience are watching and it did go well for the circumstances, so it was a little bit of a confidence-booster.”

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