NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, is in the back yard for most drivers.
By BRANT JAMES
Published May 29, 2004
In a long season sprinkled with occasional marquee events, the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway is important to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Part of the reason is he never has won the longest race on the NASCAR schedule. Part of the reason is he has a lot of memories there.
"It's considered by a lot of teams and a lot of drivers and families to be a home track," he said. "A lot of people in attendance are family members that don't get to go to most of the races if any. It's one of the first racetracks that I was able to go to as a young kid and see my dad race."
The late Dale Earnhardt won five times at the 1.5-mile Concord, N.C., track, one off the record of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.
"I've seen a lot of races there, a lot of history there," said Earnhardt, a Kannapolis, N.C., native who, like most NASCAR drivers, makes his home in North Carolina. "A lot of great things happen there. Before I even started driving, it was a pretty important, pretty prominent racetrack for me. Always had it on my list for racetracks that I've wanted to win at and I consider it one of the biggest races of the season, obviously."
The Coca-Cola 600 is an important date in the NASCAR schedule, in competition with the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. When talk of realignment began resurfacing last winter, veteran driver Kyle Petty was quick to proclaim the 600 one of the sport's untouchables.
"The three races of the season that cannot change are the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Coca-Cola 600," he said. "It is very important for NASCAR, very important for our image, that we have a big race right there the same day as the Indy 500."
Subsequent realignment gave Lowe's both of the Nextel Cup points races in North Carolina after Rockingham lost its date.
The Lowe's spring race is a harder prize than most to capture. The rigors of Nextel Cup's longest event add an extra element.
"It's obviously a different race from any other race we run," said Kurt Busch, who will start 32nd in Sunday's race in the No. 97 Ford. "It's 600 miles and you've got to build a great car underneath you because of how many changes the track goes through from daytime to nighttime and just being able to keep up with the racetrack, so it's tough."
It also presents physical and mental challenges for a driver. Though the track's length allows a 43-car field to spread out, its configuration - 24 degrees of banking in the quad-oval and a 1,360-foot backstretch - and the temperature, likely in the mid 80s on Sunday, lead to fatigue.
"It's more of a mind-set than anything," Busch said. "You just have to adjust to things that you can't see coming. You have to stay on your toes, but, yet, you have to stay on a pace for 600 miles and just stay calm and make sure you make the right decisions.
"You hydrate well and do a nice regimen of working out and doing the right things that you can do as a driver and then the team helps keep you psyched up and pumped up throughout the race. I mean, 500 miles is almost the same as 600, but there is a little bit of a difference."
The stress also will fall on the cars. Engine builders must find a compromise between durability and power that usually does not have to be struck in the shorter races.
"I've raced 24 hours alone in a race car," said rookie Brendan Gaughan, who qualified seventh in the No. 77 Dodge. "It was a lot tougher at Baja. Six hundred miles is a long distance for a NASCAR event. The big deal is you have to have good engines. We've got good horsepower. Now we've got to keep that reliability up."
That's no secret to Earnhardt. His best finish at Lowe's was fourth in 2000 after earning the pole, but he has finished no better than 25th since. Last spring, he was 41st after a late brake problem.
"It's the longest race of the season and every big event, whether it be at Daytona or Charlotte, Texas, Indianapolis, whatever, every big event of the season has its own little twists and its own piece of history to it," said Earnhardt, who qualified 10th for Sunday's race. "The 600 is one of the more historic races that lined up right next to the Southern 500, if you will, in history within the sport.
"It really means a lot to me and I think a lot of the drivers, a lot of the veterans really understand the importance of that race. So, it's really a big deal and it's hard to win. It's hard to get a good, competitive car over such a long period of time and be strong all night long."