Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be as different as night and day.
That’s because the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ longest – and, perhaps, most grueling – race 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 for the nighttime finish. The race’s extra 100 miles is taxing on both engines and driver concentration.
It’s a marathon but no longer can a driver bide his time and wait to make a late charge.
“You can’t go into this race thinking, ‘Oh, we’re just going to cruise at the beginning and wait for the track to come to us,’” said Jeff Gordon, a three-time Coca-Cola 600 winner. “That used to exist but it doesn’t anymore. You start charging from the drop of the green flag.”
No team has a better record at Charlotte Motor Speedway than Hendrick Motorsports. The organization has won 17 points-paying races – nine more than the next-best Roush Fenway Racing and Petty Enterprises.
Kasey Kahne won last year’s Coca-Cola 600 – his third – in his first season in HMS’ No. 5 Chevrolet.
Teammate Gordon’s 1994 Coca-Cola 600 win was the first of his 87 Sprint Cup victories. Gordon is the last to win both race and championship in the same seasons (1997-98).
But make no mistake. Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson remains Charlotte’s gold standard.
Johnson has won the Coca-Cola 600 three times with six Charlotte victories overall. His next win will make him the track’s all-time winner, breaking a record he shares with NASCAR Hall of Fame members Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
As further proof that Johnson is the driver to beat in Sunday’s race – the first with NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car – the Californian won his record fourth NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race last weekend, coming from deep in the field to dispatch Kahne.
Johnson ranks No. 1 in five Loop Data categories including Driver Rating (111.7), Average Running Position (7.9) and Fastest Laps Run (544).
Johnson’s All-Star victory may herald the No. 48 Chevrolet team’s return to Charlotte dominance. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus last won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2005 – before the track was repaved.
“It’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again and we’re knocking on the door,” Johnson said in his post-all-star race interviews.