Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Martin Truex Jr. dominated the Coca-Cola 600 in 2016, leading 392 of 400 laps en route to the win. The sailing wasn’t as smooth this time around, and it included a brush with the wall after a tire issue early. Plus, there were several battles for the lead before a wild restart with five to go left him to battle recent nemesis Joey Logano for the win. Logano has won the last two races where they were in a similar situation, but this time Truex was able to hold off the charging No. 22 to take the trophy and the points. All in all, he led a race-high 119 laps in a race that featured more lead changes in the first stage than the entire event a year ago and had 11 different leaders.
It was by no means an easy victory for Truex, but rather one he had to go out and wrest away from both the competition and the track, winning a four-wide battle for the lead with five laps left.
While David Ragan was front and center on the final restart (and recorded a respectable 15th-place finish), Corey LaJoie very quietly worked his way into the picture. Driving the underfunded and outmanned No. 32, LaJoie raced his way to 12th at the checkered flag in a race that’s not known for kindness to small teams.
“I’m pretty pumped up,” LaJoie said after the race. “That’s the best I’ve ever run on a mile and a half by far… we’re making a lot of guys at the other end of the garage pretty pissed when we drive by them.”
Over the last couple of years, nobody has done more with a little than the No. 32 team. They’ve surprised with very strong finishes whenever they could use a situation to their advantage. That’s the same quality that makes top teams into championship teams. No, they’re nowhere close to that level, but this team can pull a surprise once in a while.
And in other news….
WE FINISHED 12th
IN THE WORLD 600!!
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) May 27, 2019
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The Coca-Cola 600 is the Cup Series’ longest race by a solid 100 miles, and at least recently, it hasn’t been one of the most exciting races on the docket as teams play the long game. Sunday night, though, fans were treated to one of the best renditions of the spring race at Charlotte in recent memory. The last two points-paying Cup races have been on 1.5-mile tracks at night, something that has been the recipe for some of the least compelling racing, and they’ve been some of the best races of the year. It’s true that the 2019 package hasn’t improved every race, but it has improved the ones that needed it the most: night races.
A year ago, the Coca-Cola 600 featured nine lead changes among four drivers. Kyle Busch held a 3.8-second margin of victory over Truex. This year? A total of 30 lead changes among 11 drivers with a margin of victory of just 0.33 seconds.
Does that mean the package is working? Yes, at night. Overall, though, we need to see more: the cars need to be less mechanically equal, creating different corner entry points and increasing passing zones (and adding attrition to the mix with risk). Hopefully, NASCAR will consider this for the seventh-generation cars a year and a half from now.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Defending race winner Kyle Busch had a strong car, as usual, and was the only one of his teammates who didn’t have tire issues during the race. Busch led four times for a total of 79 laps and might well have contended for the win if he hadn’t lost track position with under 100 to go after contact from a sideways Kurt Busch caused damage to the right side of the No. 18. Kyle Busch’s team got him back on track, and he was able to climb back into the mix, finishing third.
Cup champion Joey Logano found himself on Truex’s bumper after the final restart, but he wasn’t able to get enough of a run to challenge the No. 19 for the win, though he finished a solid second. Logano is having a similar season to his championship year last season. He only has one win to date, but he’s leading the points on consistency.
Pole-sitter William Byron had a strong start to the night. The youngest driver to ever sit on the pole for NASCAR’s longest race led four times for 31 laps, holding his own against more experienced drivers at the front. The second-year driver finished ninth, his third top 10 of the year and second in the last three races.
Four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Jimmie Johnson, who’s one win shy of Darrell Waltrip’s record of five in this race, looked the strongest he’s been all year, with a car that had enough speed that Johnson was able to make moves. Even when he fell back on a couple of restarts, he was able to race for position, something we haven’t seen in a while from the seven-time champion. He ran as high as fourth and finished eighth, his second top 10 in the last two races. Hendrick Motorsports had all four of its cars in the top nine Sunday, and the overall improvement is evident in Johnson’s performance.
When… was the moment of truth?
So much has changed in racing over the years, it’s hard to recognize the sport sometimes. But the truth is, what really matters is still the same. Walk up pit road midrace on a hot summer night and every team is working just as hard to prepare for the next pit stop, every driver is wheeling it as hard as they can. The smell of fluids, the angry roaring of the engines, the watching a driver and wondering if this is finally the week for him. It’s all exactly the same.
No, it’s not perfect. Really, it never was. There need to be changes, some of them big. But is it as dire as some would have you believe? No.
The stands at Charlotte were far from full Sunday night, but there were more people in them than there have been in a few years. There was traffic near the track by noontime, something that was lacking a year ago. There were more campers, too. The infield was packed and the outer campgrounds were bustling, too. Why? Because the racing is better than a year ago. The race featured more lead changes, many of them under green, and more cautions than any 600-mile race in recent years. In short, it was a better race. Not perfect, but better.
What was perfect was the smell of hot race car fluids and the screech of air wrenches against the throaty anger of the cars on a hot, sultry night. That has always been perfect and it always will be.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Was that caution intentional? That was a question on a lot of people’s minds after a lap 252 incident between Truex and the No. 52 of newcomer Bayley Currey. Teams’ pit strategy varied after a rash of early cautions, and Truex was needing a yellow flag to help him salvage track position. His tangle with Currey brought one, leading to a barrage of questions from fans on social media.
Did Truex wreck Currey on purpose? Public opinion wasn’t in his favor, and Currey certainly thought so. Truex said he lost grip and couldn’t avoid Currey’s car.
On the final restart, Truex has his team ask then-leader Ragan, who stayed out on older tires on the final restart, to drop behind the cars with fresh tires. Ragan declined and got his sponsors some television time as he hung in with the leaders for a couple of laps before the old tires couldn’t keep up.
Neither incident was a good look for Truex, even if he was telling the truth on the Currey crash. He’s a capable driver, but he’s made it clear on more than one occasion he doesn’t like being raced hard. That’s not an attitude fans appreciate for long.
How… is the playoff picture shaping up at the halfway point of the regular season?
It’s hard to believe, but the regular season met the halfway mark at Charlotte. There’s still time for drivers to solidify their positions, or to fade out, but the picture is slowly coming into focus.
With three wins apiece, Kyle Busch, Truex and Brad Keselowski are all solidly in the playoffs and early title favorites. Also solidly in the top five are Logano, Kevin Havick and Chase Elliott. Harvick has yet to win, but barring something really out of the ordinary, he’ll make it on points.
Denny Hamlin’s two wins make him a lock as well.
In solid position are Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney and Clint Bowyer, inside the top 10 though without wins. All three have been strong enough that they could easily win by September and if they don’t, should still be safe on points. Throw Aric Almirola, currently 11th, in that group as well.
The 12th through 16th spots are currently held by Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson and Johnson. Ryan Newman is 17th, just eight points behind Johnson. Austin Dillon is another three behind Newman with Byron another five back. It’s possible that someone behind this group could win and make a surprise appearance, but it’s likely that the contenders will come from this group.