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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: 50×600 = 1 Big Race

It used to be, not so terribly long ago, that there were three races a driver wanted to win in his career: the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500. Sure, it was great to win anywhere, but one of those three really defined a driver in some intangible way.

From 1985 to 1997, Cup Series sponsor Winston offered up a million dollars to any driver who could win any three of four important races in any one year: The Daytona 500 (the most prestigious), the World–now Coca-Cola-600 (the longest), the Winston 500 (the fastest – remember this started before the advent of the restrictor plate) and the Southern 500 (the oldest race on the circuit until NASCAR decided that history isn’t important). The million-dollar bonus was won only twice, and that just made everyone want it more.

It seems as though the prestige of the Coca-Cola 600 has declined in the years since. The Southern 500 is all but gone and the Allstate 400 has risen to second on the list of must-wins. While winning at Indianapolis is certainly an honor (though more impressive if done in May), winning at tricky Lowe’s Motor Speedway on what is usually an infernally hot night is possibly the most impressive feat a driver can accomplish.

Think of this, as the cars prepare to take the track for the 50th running of this test of stamina, both mental and physical: it’s at least 100 miles longer than any other race on the circuit, and it’s 200 longer than the race at Indy in August. It takes well over four hours to complete, and usually has plenty of concentration-sapping long green-flag runs-and when one comes to an end, wrecks happen fast and they happen hard. There are no stretch breaks, no stops for the restroom, and snacks are limited to anything that can fit under a full-face helmet. It takes an extra measure of determination that many drivers simply don’t possess – while those that do also possess the trophy, often in multiples.

It’s not a beginner’s race. Only five times in its history has this race been won by a driver who has never visited victory lane before. Further testament that this race takes the real deal: of the five who have scored their first win in this race, four have gone on to win a Cup title (or two… or four or seven) in their careers. The race is perpetually a harbinger of success – more than a dozen Cup champions have the 600-mile race on their resumes. Reigning three-times-in-a-row champion Jimmie Johnson, one of only two drivers to pull that off, is the only driver to have won this race three times straight, and he has been dominant there most of the time-a microcosm of a brilliant career.

Even drivers who don’t go on to championships can point to the 600 as a career-making race. Casey Mears’s career is literally defined by this race – he scored his only career win to date here in 2007 and has kept and found rides that he might not have otherwise with the win under his belt. He also treated fans to one of the most memorable and emotional victory lane celebrations when longtime friend Johnson – who has known Mears long enough to see virtually every up and down of his career – came to congratulate Mears looking happier and more animated than if he’d won himself. Two-time race winner Kasey Kahne has built his resume around this race as well – while not his only victories, they are probably the most impressive.

A race this rich in history should be met with enthusiasm and excitement by fans. And the fans meet this race with… apathy. It’s not on a large number of fans’ “must-see in person” lists – Daytona, Bristol and Indianapolis seem to top that list for most. It’s usually quite a show – Charlotte is home for so much of the racing industry, and a great race is surrounded by race shop tours, acres of vendors and free concerts in nearby Charlotte.

Yet many fans (a majority, I suspect are new fans) don’t see this race as anything special. Some complain about the length. While I certainly wouldn’t vote for every race to be 600 miles long, I love that there is this one race that takes forever to complete, and the strongest car at the beginning is rarely the strongest at the end. It keeps you guessing. Some say the race is boring – and I will concede it has its moments, though the big picture suggests strongly otherwise.

The race is still a big one for the teams, but that’s mainly because so many teams and their sponsors, as well as the families of drivers and team members, are based in Charlotte, so they have a myriad of people to impress. It doesn’t seem to be as much about the race itself as it is about the location.

All of which is really a shame – track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. and NASCAR should be doing anything and everything to build the prestige of this race to what it once was. It’s possibly the most challenging race on the circuit, and that deserves more… oomph. This should be a race every fan wants to see and every driver wants to win. The teams will line up for the 50th time this week to race for 600 – and it’s a big deal. It’s a shame that many don’t think it’s special.