|Kyle Busch looking for his first Charlotte win Sunday|
That’s because the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ longest – and, perhaps, most grueling – event begins in the late afternoon heat and ends in darkness. The 600-mile race comprised of 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout is an exercise in strategy.
Run fast enough to keep track position when the sun shines but be able to adjust when night falls. The extra 100 miles is taxing on both engines and driver concentration.
Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team stood tall a year ago. Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 for the third time, matching the 600 records of teammates Jimmie Johnson (2003-04-05) and Jeff Gordon (1994, 1997-98). Hendrick is Charlotte’s defining organization with 17 points-paying victories – more than twice the number of its closest pursuers.
Johnson rides into 600 week savoring his record fourth NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race victory. He, along with Kahne, is an obvious favorite but Kyle Busch – who never has won at Charlotte – captured two of the first four All-Star Race segments and can’t be discounted.
Sprint Cup champions have ruled the Coca-Cola 600 for two decades. One notable non-winner is three-time titleholder Tony Stewart, who has managed just a single top-10 finish in his eight most recent Coca-Cola 600 starts. Stewart, outside the top 20 in current points standings, needs a victory to kick his season into a higher gear.
The Coca-Cola 600 isn’t without first-time winners. NASCAR Hall of Fame member David Pearson was the first in 1961. Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Bobby Labonte also minted first victories in the season’s longest race. So did Casey Mears and David Reutimann.
Saturday’s History 300 marks the beginning of NASCAR Nationwide Series races on 21 consecutive weekends. Elliott Sadler, who made the move to Joe Gibbs Racing to enhance his championship hopes, looks to burnish a solid Charlotte Motor Speedway resume that contains a Coors Light Pole and four top-five and five top-10 finishes. Sadler ranks third, 42 points behind leader Regan Smith.
The series’ two leading Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman, will race at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first time. They stand 10th and ninth in overall Nationwide standings, respectively.
After Kyle Busch won at Charlotte Motor Speedway to complete the 2013 NASCAR national series trifecta, NASCAR Camping World Truck teams take a one-week break before moving to Dover International Speedway for the May 31 Lucas Oil 200. Matt Crafton continues as the points leader.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES – COCA-COLA 600, SUNDAY, MAY 26, 6 P.M. EDT ON SPEED
Defending Winner Kahne Chasing Fourth Coca-Cola 600 Victory
The defending winner of the Coca-Cola 600, Kasey Kahne looks for his fourth victory in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing’s longest race. Kahne’s Charlotte statistics are impressive: four victories overall, a sweep of spring/fall races in 2006 and leader of six of the nine Coca-Cola 600 events in which he’s competed. Kahne ranks sixth in series points standings with a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. He finished fourth in Saturday’s night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Johnson-Busch Battle Seems Likely In NASCAR’s Longest Race
Consider Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race a preview of Coca-Cola 600 things to come – a battle between a champion whose Charlotte dominance is unquestioned and another who’s red-hot in 2013 but has yet to win at the 1.5-mile speedway. Jimmie Johnson, a three-time 600 winner, won his record fourth All-Star Race. Kyle Busch, whose Charlotte Driver Rating of 107.7 ranks second only to Johnson’s 111.7, was the third-place All-Star finisher after winning two of the four 20-lap segments. Busch finished third in last year’s 600.
Coca-Cola 600 Favors Sprint Cup Champions
Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 is a race for champions. All but three NASCAR Sprint Cup titleholders from 1993 through the present have a least one victory in the season’s longest race. Among the missing – surprisingly – is three-time champion Tony Stewart, whose only Charlotte victory came in the track’s 2003 fall race. Stewart has just one Coca-Cola 600 top-10 finish – sixth in 2007 – in his most recent eight races. His best finish, third, came in 2001. Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski also searches for his first Coca-Cola 600 victory. Keselowski finished fifth a year ago in his third 600 start. Terry Labonte, the 1996 series champion, is the third. He won the fall 1996 race at Charlotte, but never the 600-miler.
Gordon’s March Into Sprint Cup History Began With 600 Victory
Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is a special for Jeff Gordon. This year’s marks the 20th anniversary of his first Coca-Cola 600 start in 1993 (he finished second to Dale Earnhardt). Gordon recorded the first of his 87 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories in the following year’s race. He won back-to-back races in 1997-98 – the most recent seasons in which the Coca-Cola 600 winner also was the Sprint Cup champion.
Several Past Coca-Cola 600 Winners Nabbed First Sprint Cup Victory
Gordon isn’t the only Coca-Cola 600 starter to win for the first time in Charlotte’s spring race. The list of current drivers includes Sprint Cup champions Matt Kenseth (2000) and Bobby Labonte (1995); and Casey Mears (2007) and David Reutimann (2009). NASCAR Hall of Fame member David Pearson scored the first of his 105 Sprint Cup victories in the second running of the Coca-Cola 600 in 1961. Jamie McMurray’s first Sprint Cup victory came in Charlotte’s 2002 fall race.
Pole Winners Most Have Struck Out In Recent 600s
A Coors Light Pole will get a driver attention – and a spot in next year’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona – but it’s hardly a ticket to the Coca-Cola 600’s Victory Lane. Beginning in 1998 just two pole winners – Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (2004) have won the 600. Other winners have come from throughout the starting field including Johnson’s all-time deepest-in-the-field start of 37th in 2003.
- NASCAR Media Services