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It’s Golden: NASCAR Celebrates The 50th Coca-Cola 600

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

Four hundred laps and 600 miles usually equals approximately four-and-a-half hours behind the wheel at 1.5-mile Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Add late May heat and humidity. Teeth-rattling speeds. The evolution of a daylight start, mid-race dusk and a checkered flag in the evening. Combined, all those factors pose unique challenges, making patience, endurance and focus the keys to thriving in — and winning — the Coca-Cola 600.

Courtesy: NASCAR Media Relations

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 19, 2009) Cue the balloons and noisemakers.

When the green flag falls late Sunday afternoon at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will contest the 50th running of one of the sport’s most notable events — the Coca-Cola 600.

As NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 has embraced career-defining debuts, victories and action each year since its 1960 christening — an inimitable formula of distance and difficulty that hasn’t mellowed with the years.

“I think it's more of a mental thing that our minds are programmed for 500 miles,” said three-time Coca-Cola 600 champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet), “and when you hear halfway and you look up at the scoreboard and you realize you've gone 300 and you've got 300 to go, it's kind of a mental thing that you have to focus on.”

Joe Lee Johnson won the first Coca-Cola 600 on June 19, 1960, also the first race at the then-new 1.5-mile track outside Charlotte, N.C. Intended as a new Memorial Day tradition, that first Coca-Cola 600 had to wait a few weeks as construction crews completed their work.

But since then, tradition has held firm.  A quick statistical synopsis:

Beginning with Joe Lee Johnson, 14 drivers have won one Coca-Cola 600.

Thirteen drivers have won multiple Coca-Cola 600s, led by three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip’s five victories.

Six drivers have won three Coca-Cola 600s: David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Jimmie Johnson.

Six other drivers have won two Coca-Cola 600s: Fred Lorenzen, Jim Paschal, Richard Petty, Neil Bonnett, Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) and Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge).

Reigning and three-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s. He did it from 2003-05.

“I do like the 600-mile race from a history standpoint,” he said. “And I also like the challenge, to work on the car all night long.  Start in the day, go to the night, the longer race, all the aspects that come with it ."

The Longest And The Toughest: Uniqueness Of Coca-Cola 600 Format

Four hundred laps and 600 miles usually equals approximately four-and-a-half hours behind the wheel at 1.5-mile Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Add late May heat and humidity. Teeth-rattling speeds. The evolution of a daylight start, mid-race dusk and a checkered flag in the evening. Combined, all those factors pose unique challenges, making patience, endurance and focus the keys to thriving in — and winning — the Coca-Cola 600.

“The late afternoon start throws a wrench at you because your eating and sleep schedules change,” said Jeff Burton, the 1999 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Then, you add 600 miles of racing on top of that. It’s a perfect storm of stuff going on that makes this race a challenge. Don’t get me wrong – there are no excuses. You have to be physically ready no matter what.”

Fuel mileage and pit-road strategy become paramount as the hours dwindle.

“The track will change a lot as the sun goes down,” said Matt Kenseth (No. 17 R&L Carriers Ford), the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 champion, “and you have to have your car set up where you can keep up with the track with different adjustments when needed. You'll have to keep up with the track conditions and that usually means altering your setup throughout the race.”

“It’s tough on equipment and it’s tough mentally,” said Jeff Gordon, a three-time Coca-Cola 600 champion. “You have to mentally stay in the game and be focused for 600 miles.”

History-Maker: Coca-Cola 600 The Backdrop For Notable Victories, Career-Firsts

NASCAR’s longest event, the Coca-Cola 600, has yielded more than a few milestones through its first 49 years.

Some NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers have defined their careers via a Coca-Cola 600 victory.

Others have used it to launch their careers.

The most recent first-time winner is Casey Mears (No. 07 Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet), whose 2007 Coca-Cola 600 win was the first of his series career. Then driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Mears and his crew used tenacity, endurance and timely pit-road strategy to snare the victory.

Other drivers who claimed their series-first wins in the Coca-Cola 600 include David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte (No. 96 Ford) and Matt Kenseth. 


The 1960 series Rookie of the Year, Pearson nevertheless couldn’t find a ride in ‘61. When legendary car owner Ray Fox’s regular driver, Darel Dieringer, couldn’t compete in the second annual Coca-Cola 600 due to a conflict with a tire supplier, promoter Joe Littlejohn alerted the owner to Pearson, who was making a living doing roofing work.

The latter jumped into Fox’s car and won the ‘61 Coca-Cola 600 by two laps — his first series visit to Victory Lane.

It’s a routine Pearson would become accustomed to, racking up three series titles and second-place on the all-time wins list, with 105.

  • Pearson, who won three Coca-Cola 600s, did so in 1961, 1974 and 1976.
  • Gordon, currently sixth on the all-time wins list with 82 victories, raced to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600.

    As the reigning Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Gordon won the pole for the ‘94 Coca-Cola 600 with a track-record run. But after leading the first lap, he stayed invisible for much of the race,  avoiding the attrition rate plaguing other drivers.

    Gordon didn’t re-take the lead until Lap 300, and then only for two laps. He surged back in front for good on Lap 392, beating runner-up Rusty Wallace by nearly four seconds. 

  • Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, was just getting started in 1995, his third full-time season. Then driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, he won his first series race in the ‘95 Coca-Cola 600, after starting on the outside pole.

    His finish was a bit of a classic. He won by a whopping 6.28 seconds over runner-up and older brother Terry Labonte, the 1984 series champion. The elder Labonte would win his second series title a year later, in 1996.

    “Memorial Day is huge for motorsports and obviously for our veterans and military,” Bobby Labonte said. “So, it’s a neat deal. Now that we live here and we race in it, it’s pretty neat. It meant a lot to win the Coke 600.”

  • Though he didn’t win the Coca-Cola 600 in his title season, the younger Labonte figured in Kenseth’s career-first victory that season.

    Kenseth, who would win the 2003 series title, won the 2000 Coca-Cola 600 as a rookie. He edged Bobby Labonte by 0.573 seconds.

  • The Coca-Cola 600 also has been the race of choice for series debuts. Those drivers who turned their first official NASCAR Sprint Cup laps in the Memorial Day event at LMS include:

    • Dale Earnhardt (1975) finished 22nd;
    • Janet Guthrie (1976) finished 15th;
    • Michael Waltrip (1985) finished 28th;
    • Elliott Sadler (1998) finished 42nd;
    • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1999) finished 16th.

      Guthrie’s debut also made history. She became the first female driver to race on a superspeedway in NASCAR competition.

It’s Johnson’s House, But Edwards And Kyle Busch May Have A Foot In The Door

The obvious favorite at Lowe’s Motor Speedway is Jimmie Johnson.

He’s the only driver with an average finish under 10.0 (his is 8.9).

He’s the only driver with a Driver Rating over 110.0 (his is 117.1). And he’s the only driver with an Average Running Position under 10.0 (his is 7.2).

But two other drivers in particular seem poised to steal Johnson’s “King of Lowe’s Motor Speedway” crown: Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch.

Neither have won, but theirs statistics suggest it is just a matter of time.

Edwards has the second-best average finish – 10.8, the only other driver close to average a top-10 finish.

Likewise, his career Loop Data statistics at LMS are strong.

He has a Driver Rating of 89.0 (seventh-best), an Average Running Position of 16.8 (eighth), 61 Fastest Laps Run (13th), a series-high 604 Green Flag Passes and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 51.6% (10th).

Busch seems even more likely to nab his first LMS win, which would fit his success spectrum. He has 15 wins, and only at Bristol Motor Speedway is he a repeat winner. It’s almost as if Busch loves the element of surprise.

But if he wins at LMS, few will be shocked.

Busch has finished in the top four in each of the last three LMS races, and has led at least one lap in the last five races there.

Busch’s Loop Data statistics are among the best. He is the only other driver beside Johnson to earn a Driver Rating over 100.0. His is 100.4.

Additionally, Busch has an Average Running Position of 12.2 (third-best), 183 Fastest Laps Run (third-most), an average Green Flag Speed of 176.233 mph (second-fastest) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 75.1% (third).

Charting Progress: Hornish Hopes To Build On Past Memorial Day Success

Learning curves aren’t much fun.

So has Sam Hornish Jr., a former Indianapolis 500 champion (2006) and three-time IndyCar Series champion, found out in his 18-month NASCAR Sprint Cup foray for Penske Racing.

But just days away from one of the series’ marquee races — the 50th Coca-Cola 600 — the former open-wheel star has found both solid footing and flashes of brilliance.

Which soon may pay off in the standings.

Two recent top-10 finishes, plus last week’s stellar performance in the 25th annual NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at LMS, signal Hornish’s learning and comfort gains.

He’s 31st in the standings heading into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, but he and his No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge team feel upward-bound.

Hardware always helps.

Hornish won last weekend’s Sprint Showdown, the preliminary race that sends the winner to the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. He finished 16th in the evening’s main event.

“I love racing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway,” Hornish said. “It is by far one of my favorite tracks. Having the chance to compete in the All-Star Race gave me an additional 100 laps of practice for this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. I also earned my first NASCAR trophy by winning the Sprint Showdown and it was such a thrill for me and the entire Mobil 1 team.”

Last month’s ninth-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway and a sixth-place result three week’s ago at Richmond International Raceway are further signs of progress. Add a pair of fourth-place starts at Talladega Superspeedway and Darlington Raceway, and Hornish believes he may have overcome last year’s rookie trials and this year’s tough start.

“I’m so happy with the progress we are making as team,” he said. “We’ve had some really good runs lately and it is due to everyone’s hard work and dedication.

“I’ve been saying for a while that good things were coming, that all the pieces were falling into place.

“I’m excited to get back to Lowe’s Motor Speedway this weekend for the Coca-Cola 600. We all hope to have another strong run in the Mobil 1 Dodge. It’s the longest race of the year at 400 laps so patience will be key as well as just taking care of yourself physically so that we can be there in the end.”

At LMS, Hornish will be surrounded by former open-wheel brethren, including the 2000 Indianapolis 500 champion, Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Target Dodge), and two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet), the 1997 IndyCar Series champion who won last week’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.

Other former open-wheel standouts who will compete at LMS on Memorial Day weekend include Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon (No. 7 Jim Beam/Operation Home Front Toyota), Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears, AJ Allmendinger (No 44 Hunt Brothers Pizza Dodge), Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota), Dave Blaney (No. 66 Prism Motorsports Toyota) and Max Papis (No. 13 GEICO Toyota). 
NASCAR Sprint All-Star Week: A Competitive And Fan-Friendly Success

Last week’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race victory by Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart capped an exciting and eventful all-star weekend in the Charlotte, N.C., area.

As the first part of the two weeks of NASCAR national-series racing that traditionally ends the month of May, Stewart’s  win was a career-first in all-star competition.

But it was preceded by plenty of excitement.

The very popular band O.A.R. opened the festivities with a “NASCAR Rev’d Up” concert last Wednesday evening, drawing a crowd of 15,000 to uptown Charlotte.

A day later, Jeff Burton’s No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet team won the 5th Annual NASCAR Sprint Pit Crew Challenge presented by Craftsman. Held at Time-Warner Cable Arena, Burton’s Richard Childress Racing crew beat 23 other NASCAR Sprint Cup teams, before an enthusiastic crowd of all ages.

On Saturday night, actor Kevin Costner and his band, Modern West, played a pre-race concert at LMS. The band Montgomery Gentry also performed a pre-race concert for fans.

As for on-track exploits, the Sprint Fan Vote  provided another piece of all-star drama. Thanks to millions of votes, Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) earned a starting spot in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.

The weather even smiled — holding off earlier rain and permitting the 140,000 in attendance to witness all 100 laps of all-star excitement.

Perhaps the last 10 laps were the most thrilling yet as Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet), Matt Kenseth and Stewart all battled for the win and the million-dollar paycheck, with Stewart finally muscling in front of the others.

Hundreds of fans also stayed to watch Stewart’s Victory Lane celebration from the LMS frontstretch.

NSCS, Etc.

Bill Elliott, the 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, is approaching a significant milestone.

His next start will be his 800th, which means fans may witness history if Elliott qualifies the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Motorcraft Ford for Sunday’s 50th Coca-Cola 600.

David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota) will make his 75th career start on Sunday.

All 50 U.S. states are accounted for in the home address of ticketholders for Sunday’s 50th Coca-Cola 600, according to LMS officials, who also report that fans from  Canada, Australia, Belgium, Bermuda, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom  will attend Sunday’s race.

NASCAR legend Bobby Allison, the 1983 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who will serve as Grand Marshal for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, will be honored the day before in Concord, N.C.

Historic Downtown Concord is hosting a Tribute to Bobby Allison from 3-7 p.m. on Friday, May 22. It’s a family-oriented event on Union Street that will include a proclamation, musical performances by Charlotte Music Legends Band and Jeff Luckadoo.

The winner of Sunday’s 50th Coca-Cola 600 will take home an unusual and significant trophy.

Black Oscuro marble forms the base, which supports an Everdur bronze piston plated in 22-carat gold. Crystal columns engraved with winners’ names and race dates surround the piston. Commemorative logos also grace the base.

Weighing 225 pounds, the trophy was a product of Efron Design and constructed by Innocast Execuline. 

Up Next: Dover International Speedway

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ next stop is the Autism Speaks 400 presented by Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips & Cheese. It takes place next Sunday, May 31, at Dover International Speedway.

Kyle Busch is the defending winner. Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M/Red Cross Ford) is the defending pole sitter.

Legends Bobby Allison and Richard Petty lead all drivers with seven Dover wins each. Mark Martin (No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet) leads active drivers with 21 top fives and 28 top 10s at Dover. He and Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers with four Dover wins each.

Fast Facts

The Race: Coca-Cola 600

The Date: Sunday, May 24

The Track: Lowe’s Motor Speedway (1.5-mile quad-oval)

The Time: 5:45 p.m. ET

The Distance: 400 laps/600 miles

TV: FOX. 5:00 p.m. ET

Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite
(WSOC-FM 103.7 local)

2008 Polesitter: Kyle Busch

2008 Winner: Kasey Kahne

Schedule: Thursday, Practice, 3-
4:30. Qualifying, 7:10. Saturday, 2:45-3:30 and 6-6:50 p.m.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.