By Jared Turner
In stark contract to last weekend’s Sprint All-Star Race, a 110-lap affair that practically feels like it’s over before it starts, this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 is an endurance test unrivaled by any other event on the annual Sprint Cup calendar.
Six hundred miles and 400 laps, the Coca-Cola 600 is 100 miles longer than any other race on the Sprint Cup schedule. It begins at 6 p.m. – in the heat of the day – and ends some four-and-a-half hours later in the cool of the night.
Being fast at the start doesn’t mean a driver will be fast in the middle or at the end. Likewise, drivers who often struggle in the opening laps find their mojo as the event wears on.
“The big thing you need to stay aware of is the track changing,” said Jimmie Johnson, a winner of four Coca-Cola 600s. “That’s the biggest issue that we’ll deal with starting in the day and finishing late at night. I think maybe toward the start of my career we were a little bit worried about equipment and managing equipment. But those all seem to be distant memories now and you can really run every lap like it’s the last. Drivers’ fitness and hydration is kind of a player in there as well and you might see a little bit of fatigue at the end. I feel like I’ve got that base covered if it does come down to that. You’ve got a lot of opportunities to work on your car and that’s what I’ll tell myself all night long.
“If things don’t go our way, if we’re caught in the pits when a caution comes out, or something doesn’t work in our favor, you’ve got 100 more miles to sort things out. 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.”
So do drivers ever have a problem with their minds wandering off in such a long race?
“That is a good question,” said two-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Kevin Harvick. “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 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.”
Not surprisingly, the list of top-tier drivers still seeking their first triumph in the Coca-Cola 600 is long.
“This is definitely a race I’d love to win,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., a native of nearby Kannapolis, North Carolina. “I want to win a points 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 (turns) 1 and 2, 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.”