May 23, 2019 / 8:13 PM / 7 months ago

Coca-Cola 600 tests drivers' stamina

For all the deserved attention this Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) receives annually — for its celebration of our country’s military heroes and the challenge of mastering NASCAR’s longest race — it has presented a unique competitive situation for even the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series best.

May 23, 2019; Concord, NC, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (9) during practice for the Coca-cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Eight of the top-16 drivers in the current series standings — Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson — have never won a regular-season race on the Charlotte oval.

Five more — Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer — have only one Charlotte trophy each despite four championships and 149 race wins among them.

Not only is this race the longest of the season (600 miles — 400 laps), but it has more stages (four) and will be contested under unusual conditions, late afternoon turning into nighttime.

“It’s a hundred miles longer than any other race we run, which provides a challenge in and of itself,” said Almirola, driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “On top of that, there is an extra stage, which gives us the opportunity to earn more points.

“The cars have less grip when the sun is out, and they tend to slip and slide a lot more. As the sun goes down, the track gets more grip and we start going faster. That’s one of the very unique things about this race.

“What you have from a drive-ability and balance standpoint from the race car at the beginning of the race is not what you have at the end. You’re trying to figure out what it takes to get your car to win at the end, and you have to be good at all facets because there are a lot of points to be made.”

There have been nine different Coca-Cola 600 winners in the last 10 years — only Kevin Harvick has won the race twice in that span. Austin Dillon earned his first-ever Monster Energy Series win in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Kyle Busch got his first-ever series victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway last spring.

Martin Truex Jr. set an amazing mark of dominance, leading 392 of the 400 laps, in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600. And Jimmie Johnson earned a fourth Coca-Cola 600 trophy in 2014 — tops among this week’s field.

The opportunity to win in such a unique, extended format during one of the most celebrated racing weekends of the year is something that makes the drivers even more enthusiastic.

“With it being the 600, I love the tradition of the extra 100 miles and the toll that it puts on the cars, teams and drivers,” Dillon said. “It is genuinely a cool event and one of the marquee races in NASCAR.”

As Dillon indicated, even the talented younger drivers recognize the special circumstance it takes to hoist a trophy in this particular event.

“I think it’s a true test of your fitness level and mental capacity as a driver, not just for the heat but for the endurance it takes,” said Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who did not finish in his Charlotte 600-mile debut last year.

“Team-wise, there was a stretch for a few years that it was easier to make it 600 miles, but now with the performance as critical as it is, I think the cars are pushed more and the engines are pushed more, making it harder to go the full distance. I think this race really is a test of everything you have as the sport just gets more and more competitive.”

XFINTY SERIES RETURNS TO CHARLOTTE

As with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 600-miler, the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco 300 (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has proven to be one of the most competitive events on the schedule with six different winners taking the checkered flag in the past six races.

Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series race last year over Cole Custer and Christopher Bell — two drivers who ultimately raced for the Xfinity Series championship in 2018 and are setting themselves up for another run at the title this season.

This weekend, Austin Dillon is the only full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver entered in the race. He swept the series Charlotte races in 2015. He and veteran Jeff Green (May 2001 and May 2002) are the only former Charlotte winners in the field.

Slideshow (9 Images)

This weekend marks the 11th race for the Xfinity Series, and an impressive seven races have been won by series regulars, led by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bell (three) and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Custer (two). Both their team owners, coincidentally — Gibbs and Tony Stewart — were voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday.

Defending series champion Tyler Reddick (the Talladega race winner) leads the points standings by 23 points over Bell. Custer is third, 71 points behind. Austin Cindric (-81) and Justin Allgaier (-114) round out the top five.

—By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.

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