Coca-Cola 600 has a history with major appeal

Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service Thursday, May 22 1438

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has long been considered by many as one of NASCAR’s “major” events along with the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, one or perhaps both of Talladega Superspeedway’s races and, since 1994, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It is a status well-earned.

NASCAR’s longest race – 600 miles/400 laps around the 1.5-mile CMS layout – also is one of its most historic. Six times in the event’s 54 years, drivers have gotten their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win in the 600; four of those victories amounted to a preview of greatness: David Pearson in 1961, Jeff Gordon in 1994, Bobby Labonte in 1995 and Matt Kenseth in 2000.

In those 54 years, the race has been won by past, present or future Sprint Cup champions 28 times. And of the 26 times “non-champions” have won, you’re still talking about a stellar lineup that includes many of NASCAR’s all-time greats such as 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Fred Lorenzen, Jim Paschal, Marvin Panch, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison and Mark Martin.

This year, however, the focus is not so much on history as it is the present.

There are a number of drivers, starting with Kenseth and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who both need a win as quickly as possible. Both are winless this season and that’s not good. With the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format in place, race winners get first dibs on Chase berths; relying on your standing in the series points is not the preferred approach to qualifying for NASCAR’s “playoffs.”

“I love this race. It’s such a challenge to all of us both mentally and physically. The (No.) 48 team does well here because it’s such a long race that you have the time to adjust on your car, make the changes from day to night and improve with each stop.”

For Kenseth, Johnson and just about anyone else in Sunday’s field yet to win this year, the 600 should seem inviting. Back to the talk of “firsts” – for 13 of the last 25 Coca-Cola 600 winners, it was their first win of the season.

Speaking of firsts, Kurt Busch is closing in on one – his first attempt at that most daunting of double-duty assignments, driving in both the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day.

Indy starts the long day at noon (ET) Sunday, with the 600 following at 6 p.m. (ET, FOX). A corporate plane flight – wide-open, of course – connects the two. This arduous assignment has been attempted eight previous times by a total of only three drivers. The rundown: John Andretti (1994), Robby Gordon (1997, 2000, ’02, ’03, ’04) and Tony Stewart (’99 and ’01). Stewart has the best result, finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001 while also becoming the only driver to complete the two-race total of 1,100 miles.

“We’re still the only guy who’s completed all 1,100 miles of Double Duty, which is something I’m really proud of,” Stewart said. “It makes for a very, very long day. When you’re done with the 600, after running Indy and the flight and helicopter rides and police escorts and all that during the day, you’re very, very content to lay your head on a pillow. And even when you do that, it still feels like it’s not stopped moving, yet.”

Busch qualified 12th for the Indianapolis 500, but crashed in a Monday practice session and will be forced to a back-up car.

A classic championship battle has developed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which returns to action Saturday at 2:45 p.m. ET (ABC) at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the History 300. The series standings leader, 18-year-old rookie Chase Elliott – whose father Bill was announced this week as a 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee – leads Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith by merely two points. Elliott has five top-five finishes this year including his spectacular, consecutive victories at Texas and Darlington last month.

Look for the points to stay tight after this week. CMS, like Texas, is a fast 1.5-mile track. Elliott leads the series in Driver Rating at “1.5s” with a 109.8; his average finish on intermediate tracks this year is 3.0. Sadler has four top-five results in 14 NNS races at Charlotte. Smith finished 10th and seventh, respectively, on the 1.5-mile ovals at Las Vegas and Texas earlier this year.