The Frontstretch: The Art Of Closing The Deal In NASCAR's Longest Race by Kevin Rutherford -- Tuesday May 21, 2013

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The Art Of Closing The Deal In NASCAR's Longest Race

Going By the Numbers · Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday May 21, 2013

 

The Coca-Cola 600 is NASCAR’s longest race, a grueling few hours of competition that tops the next longest event by 100 miles. Christened as the World 600 in 1960, the race has been a cornerstone of the Sprint Cup Series schedule, one of its crown jewels at one of its most famous tracks, Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Looking for one of the best active drivers at Charlotte? Kasey Kahne fits the bill.

Think about it: rather than getting just 400 or 500 miles of elite NASCAR competition, each May brings a bonus 100 miles of racing, not to mention an All-Star Race the preceding weekend. The two-week affair may not defeat the Daytona 500 in terms of intrigue, fanfare, and overall excitement, but the Coca-Cola 600 is certainly a race not to be missed.

The extra 100 miles bring much to the table. It can add more heavy sighs to an already boring race. It allows more time to recover from an early pit road failure. Most importantly, it gives the second-place driver more of an opportunity to grab a win and doesn’t grant the leader at 500 miles any luxuries. You’ve led the first 500 miles of the race? Well, good for you. 67 laps to go.

Sixty-seven laps. That’s, more or less, the amount of laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway equivalent to 100 miles (actually, it’s 100.5, but with a mile-and-a-half track, there’s just no way to make it even in this case). Those 67 circuits showcase the talent of the best of the best, be it via a thrilling sprint to the finish or the continuation of a dominating race by stretching resources as thin as can be.

As history has it, no one’s been better at that skill than Darrell Waltrip.

The three-time champion and five-time 600 winner was one of the race’s best closers. All told, Waltrip led 261 laps in the final 100 miles (67 laps) of his starts at the track, eclipsing his closest competitor by — hey, look — 67 laps led. That’s the most of anyone since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, encompassing seven different races in which Waltrip led at least a lap during the race’s final 100 miles. The numbers include all races since 1972, sans 1997, 2003 and 2009, all years in which the 600 was shortened.

Those stats are helped by the fact that Waltrip led the final 100 miles twice, in 1979 and 1989. That’s a rare feat, but the current FOX race broadcaster isn’t alone in that kind of domination. Richard Petty (‘77, ’74), Bobby Allison (‘81) and Rusty Wallace (‘90) also accomplished the tough task, something made even tougher these days.

Waltrip’s followed in total laps led by Wallace, who led 194 circuits over four races from 1987-‘98. Petty totals third with 167.

That’s cool and all, but all three drivers are no longer active in NASCAR, so saying, “Hey, these guys were good in the closing laps!” might be a stat lost on many.

That’s where the fourth-best (and counting, surely) driver comes in.

Kasey Kahne is known as an immensely strong Charlotte driver, having scored four wins at the track, including last year’s Coca-Cola 600. The Hendrick Motorsports competitor has led a total of 135 laps in the closing 100 miles in the 600, including a dominating 64 laps in 2012. There’s no reason those numbers won’t increase again in the coming years, perhaps even this weekend.

Fifth place in the ranking is another legend of the sport. Allison led 126 laps in the closing miles, including his dominating 1981 performance.

As far as active drivers go, Kahne is followed by Bobby Labonte, who was kind of the Kasey Kahne of the late-‘90s/early-‘00s at the track. He’s got a grand total of 116 laps led during those final 100 miles. Jimmie Johnson is six laps from 100 at 94 led, with Jeff Burton fourth at 84 and Tony Stewart fifth with 64 laps led.

Alternately, who’s still waiting to lead even one lap in the closing 100 miles? Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex, Jr. are still waiting to lead their first laps, at Charlotte in such a timeframe, as are Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Aric Almirola. Brad Keselowski only has one lap led to his credit, coming last year.

With 400 total laps in a non-shortened Coke 600, drivers have many opportunities to lead even one lap, certainly benefiting those looking to get one in for the bonus points. But Sunday night, it’ll be the final 100 miles that will separate the could-bes from the definitely-ares.

It’s a no-brainer to keep a close eye on Kasey Kahne anyway; the man has been fairly lights-out at Charlotte the last few years. For the driver of the No. 5, it’s now not just a matter of winning the race; if Kahne can piece together a fair number of laps led (even all 67), he’ll be that much closer to Waltrip’s overall mark.

Most Laps Led in Coca-Cola 600 in Final 100 Miles Since 1972

Darrell Waltrip – 261 laps
Rusty Wallace – 194
Richard Petty – 167
Kasey Kahne – 135
Bobby Allison – 126

Most Laps Led in Coca-Cola 600 in Final 100 Miles Since 1972 (Active Drivers)

Kasey Kahne – 135
Bobby Labonte – 116
Jimmie Johnson – 94
Jeff Burton – 84
Tony Stewart – 64

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Michael in SoCal
05/21/2013 01:36 PM
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600 miles on a cookie cutter? I think I’ll find some excruciating chore and get that done – it will be much more exciting. I’ll watch the last 20 laps if I remember.