The Headline(s): Martin Truex, Jr. quipped that he did his best work after 10 p.m., and that proved to be the case during a marathon Coca-Cola 600. Capping a dominant performance over the last 150 laps of Sunday’s race and capitalizing on a controversial pit cycle that saw Truex dump backmarker Bayley Currey only to take the lead under the ensuing yellow on pit stops, Truex navigated a four-wide frenzy on a lap 396 restart. He held off a hard-charging Joey Logano to score his third win of 2019 and 35th career NASCAR national series victory. Logano, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. rounded out the top five.
How It Happened: Polesitter William Byron held off an early race charge from Aric Almirola and led the first 23 laps before the first of many yellow flags would fly on Sunday evening. Erik Jones brought out the first yellow when he pounded the turn 4 wall, the first of myriad tire problems for the Toyotas in the field.
The ensuing pit cycle handed the lead to Kyle Busch, who held off Kevin Harvick until a lap 48 caution for Matt DiBenedetto hitting the turn 2 wall with a cut tire. Harvick would seize the lead on pit road, only for Kyle Busch to take it back on the ensuing restart on lap 55. Harvick would take the point again on lap 60, until Truex emerged as the leader with a backstretch pass on lap 63. Truex ran away from the field until around lap 74, when he brought out the yellow himself scraping the turn 4 wall.
With tire conservation on teams’ minds, Daniel Hemric led a pack of seven cars that stayed out on old tires for the lap 79 restart, but only held that lead until lap 82, when Brad Keselowski sliced to the front. The yellow would fly again on lap 86, when Kyle Busch spun Stenhouse (unintentionally, video replay showed that Busch made every attempt to stay off a loose No. 17 car). Though Harvick would briefly take the lead back on a lap 91 restart, a trigger-happy NASCAR threw the yellow that same lap when Hemric got out of shape and kissed the frontstretch wall. Keselowski would prevail on the lap 96 restart and go on to win stage one.
On the ensuing lap 108 restart, Denny Hamlin used a push from Harvick to take the lead from Keselowski, which he would hold until a lap 127 caution when Chris Buescher hit the wall. Keselowski would take the lead back on pit road only to lose it to teammate Ryan Blaney on the lap 132 restart; he retook the point on lap 134. The yellow would fly again on lap 161 when Hamlin became the latest Toyota with tire troubles, scraping the turn 2 wall. Polesitter Byron retook the lead on pit road for the lap 167 restart, only to lose it to Keselowski on the next lap. Keselowski would maintain the lead through a lap 189 yellow for Ryan Preece hitting the fence with tire troubles, and on the final restart of stage 2, passed Alex Bowman and Byron (who stayed out on old tires) to win stage two.
Kyle Busch cycled through to the lead on lap 209 and dominated the first half of stage three until the caution flag flew on lap 252 for Truex brazenly dumping Currey exiting turn 2 (more on that later).
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 27, 2019
The ensuing caution flag pit stops put Truex and his teammate Kyle Busch at the race lead, and after the two briefly battled between laps 259 and 261, Truex would drive away from the field to win stage 3.
The final stage went green on lap 308, with Elliott prevailing over Truex on the restart only for the yellow to fly once Kurt Busch spun into oncoming traffic on the frontstretch (credit to Harvick for an amazing evasive move that prevented a major accident). The wrecks weren’t done though, as the backstretch would become calamity central on a lap 315 restart that saw Kyle Larson get out of shape and into a hard wreck with Austin Dillon.
Elliott would hold the lead when the race went back green on lap 324, holding off repeated challenges from Truex until lap 345. Once out front, Truex would successfully navigate several additional restarts, the last coming on lap 396; starting on the second row behind David Ragan and Ryan Newman (who were on zero and two tires, respectively), Truex prevailed in a four-wide run down the backstretch that saw him get the better of Logano, who stalked him for the final 39 laps.
(Why) Should You Care: Considering this race was a five-hour marathon that could also be argued to be the first NASCAR race with a halftime show (no matter how well-intentioned), the debate over whether a 600-mile race remains a necessity for NASCAR in the attention-deprived 21st century was raging aplenty, even during a race that was arguably the most eventful 600 Charlotte has seen since the 2005 levigation disaster. And Sunday night delivered a decisive answer: Yes, the World 600 is still a necessity.
Look at the races NASCAR is competing with on this most hallowed day of motorsport. There are very few racetracks/courses in the world famous enough to put on crown jewel races despite being nearly impossible to pass on, and the street circuit at Monte Carlo is one of them. It doesn’t matter that the polesitter has about a 90% chance of winning the Monaco Grand Prix every year, and it doesn’t matter that Lewis Hamilton’s masterful drive didn’t translate into a thrilling race to watch (the commentators even admitted driving slower was in his best interest)… it’s Monaco.
Then there’s the Indianapolis 500, a race arguably bigger than the championship, it is a part of (in terms of crowd size, it’s not even arguable). Despite having a field full of unpronounceable names that year after year relies on up to a dozen part-time entries scraping deals together to fill 11 rows, and despite being a raceday experience where 90% of the folks in the grandstand can’t name 90% of the starting field (or see 90% of the race track itself), the Indianapolis 500 remains the largest single-day sporting event in the world. Even in its heyday, the 600 could never match its scope. There’s some truth to stock car racing’s being deluded about its place on this day:
— GorDONE (@mr4time) May 27, 2019
Which leaves NASCAR in a position where its Memorial Day event needs something unique to distinguish itself. Concord, NC is not Monte Carlo, and Charlotte Motor Speedway is not the Brickyard. But the 600 is something neither of those races can boast, arguably the harshest test of man and machine that is competed on this Sunday. It dwarfs any open-wheel race in the world in terms of duration. It boasts a challenge in changing track conditions that no race on either the F1 or IndyCar circuit offers. And in terms of the stock car racing universe, it’s a true crown jewel because it’s 600 miles. Otherwise, the former Bank of America 500 would have been a far more coveted trophy.
The racing product spoke for itself this Sunday: Between tire strategy, comers and goers (Keselowski went from 21st to win the first two stages, dropped like a rock in stage three, only to be battling for the top five again before cutting a tire in the closing 10 laps) and demanding conditions that had veteran crew chief Chad Knaus having to tell his young driver Byron “eat something!” under yellows, the Coca-Cola 600 was a marathon with twists and turns worth watching.
But more than anything, the 600 remaining the 600 is important on a day where F1 and IndyCar shine brightest because they stick to tradition, no questions asked (though Simon Pagenaud did throw off victory lane with his impromptu stop on the yard of bricks after the Indy 500).
Sure, it was created as a Humpy Wheeler production that decided “if we can’t get bigger we’ll get longer,” but it is stock car racing’s tradition now. It’s our longest race, it’s a freaking marathon, and it goes day into night. That’s what we do.
It’s one of the few “that’s what we dos” stock car racing fans have left.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Logano got Team Penske’s No. 22 within one spot of sweeping the Indianapolis 500/Coca-Cola 600 for the first time ever despite running like junk for 500 miles on Sunday.
Kyle Busch didn’t come close to replicating his 2018 dominance in this race, but recovering to finish third after incurring damage in a collision with his brother Kurt on lap 310 was impressive nonetheless.
Buescher rebounded from heavy contact with the wall on lap 127 to crack the top 15 by lap 325, and by race’s end to score a season-best sixth-place finish that was also a career-best at Charlotte. Comeback kid of the race, no questions asked.
Hendrick Motorsports may not be back to calling Charlotte “their house” again, but between Byron winning the pole, Elliott giving Truex a spirited battle for the race lead in the final stage and the organization putting four cars in the top 10 for the first time ever in the 600, it was a convincing performance. If there’s any organization missing the fall oval race at Charlotte, it’s HMS.
The 600 always tends to produce some left field good finishes, and Corey LaJoie got to wear that crown on Sunday. Finishing 12th was only the second top 15 of the 2019 season for the No. 32 team, and was by far the best finish at Charlotte that Go FAS Racing has ever enjoyed (their previous best was 23rd).
Quin Houff’s 28th place finish may not look flashy, but it was a career-best finish for the Virginia youngster. What’s more, Houff did not incur any wrath as a lapped car over the course of a five-hour race (at least none that I heard or saw reported), and in finishing four laps down, came the closest to a lead lap finish that Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 car has in 2019.
Ragan faded within a lap after staying out on old tires on the final restart of the race at lap 396 but did several things well. One, despite being a sitting duck, he raced the field clean and brought home a top-15 finish on an evening where Front Row Motorsports was not on its A-game (the Nos. 34 and 38 teams incurred pit road penalties, while Matt Tifft’s No. 36 experienced its third crew suspension for inspection failures since Richmond). But more importantly, his crew defied the most entitled, whiny driver racing in the Cup ranks today by refusing to move to the rear for the final five laps.
That driver is Truex, who accomplished a great deal this Sunday. For one, he weathered challenges from some of the sport’s hottest drivers in Elliott and Logano to win his second 600 in the last four years. But on another note, Truex has potentially topped his teammate Rowdy for being the most petulant, arrogant, entitled driver in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. That’s no small accomplishment. After moaning and groaning for the better part of a month about every lapped car on track, Truex scored a win for Goliath when he brazenly dumped Rick Ware Racing’s No. 52 car into the backstretch wall (conveniently, at a time where his No. 19 team needed a yellow flag). Truex incurred plenty of social media wrath when he passed Elliott for the race lead on lap 345, twice making contact with the No. 9 car that many viewed as unnecessary. And then came lap 396, where Truex’s team had the gall to ask Ragan’s team, a lead lap car that was leading a Cup race with five laps to go, if they planned to pull over to let the big boys race for the win. It’s a good thing NASCAR went overboard with the honor and tributes during Sunday’s race because the race winner was down a couple quarts by the time he got to Victory Lane.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Between winning the first two stages and giving teammate Logano everything he could handle in a battle for the podium after a lap 366 restart, Keselowski and Blaney both showed how potent the entire Penske organization was on motorsports’ biggest day. However, synchronized tire failures that brought out the final yellow on lap 391 deprived both drivers of decent finishes.
The Richard Childress Racing organization saw the night and day difference between Xfinity and Cup racing this weekend; one day after Tyler Reddick again willed his No. 2 team to the win, it was barely 100 miles in before Hemric had hit the wall. As for Austin Dillon, a strong race ended in a dramatic crash that saw the No. 3 left with nowhere to go when Larson got out of shape on lap 315 and triggered the most violent wreck of the day:
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 27, 2019
Since Dillon’s 2017 victory, no RCR Cup car has scored a top 10 on the Charlotte oval.
Speaking of Larson, he had actually staged a comeback of his own prior to that lap 315 wreck (the No. 42 hit the wall for the first time only 11 laps into the race, battling back from outside the top 20 into the lead pack). However, Sunday’s race ended as so many others have for Larson this Sunday — with bent sheet metal. What’s more, this wreck was entirely of his own making and derailed any momentum the No. 42 team had from their All-Star Race win last weekend.
Another week, another problem for DiBenedetto and the No. 95 team. DiBenedetto’s day ended very early as part of the spate of tire problems that gripped the Toyota camp. I guess LFR can take solace that their problems are the same that JGR corporate is having?
The most mechanically challenged driver and team on the Cup circuit in 2019 goes to Landon Cassill and the No. 00 team, who parked with an engine issue soon after the first stage ended. Cassill and crew have finished more than 30 laps off the pace in three of the last five races despite only having one DNF in that span.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
I spent much of my last Thinkin’ talking about cool weather and its impact on the package. Then NASCAR comes to Charlotte for the third-hottest 600 on record, and the package puts on a great show. I’ll gladly eat crow if it means we get more races like Sunday’s and can get them on slick tracks in daylight. I’d prefer that crow pulled with vinegar though: We are in the Carolinas, after all.
Since NASCAR was back in the Carolinas, I got feeling nostalgic Friday night and watched an old Xfinity Series race from Rockingham, circa 1995. Though the lack of an in-race ticker is an adjustment in watching old races, what struck me in watching the old TNN broadcast was how their pit reporters somehow managed to interview every… single… driver that ended up behind the wall with an issue. Given that TNN could do it, I’m baffled that the mighty FOX network couldn’t scrounge up a reporter to go to the care center to interview Currey, especially seeing as how his wreck dramatically altered the course of the race:
"I'm just amazed at that 19 car. He put that car in the wall and now he's in the lead."
— ??⌬?? ☣︎ ? ⅊ ? ? (@Planet_Occident) May 27, 2019
The race winner hit the wall. Buescher scored a season-best finish after hitting the wall. Bowman and Jimmie Johnson both scored top-10 finishes despite hitting the wall. Larson was battling for a top-five position after hitting the wall, and before triggering the lap 315 wreck that ended his day. Kyle Busch finished third despite getting tagged by his brother in a lap 310 incident. For all the talk of how the Xfinity Series’ composite bodies are tough, it seems the Cup cars themselves are also plenty durable. Which honestly makes me frown on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s installation of artificial turf on the infield. I get that in the splitter era, such turf will prevent catastrophic damage to spinning cars, and I also get that today’s race cars are not anything like the ridiculous COT styrofoam blocks that allowed Kyle Busch to win the 2008 Southern 500 while literally knocking down walls. But at the same time, spins and wall slaps need to have consequences. Motorsports don’t need to become esports.
One consistent in Sunday’s race: No matter how hard Hamlin tried, he kept finding trouble, experiencing two tire failures before ending the race with a headfirst wreck that totaled the No. 11 coming to the checkers. What was inconsistent (but so consistent for NASCAR) was how the failures were officiated. On lap 161, when Hamlin slapped the turn 2 wall, NASCAR correctly waited to throw the yellow flag for nearly half a lap until it was obvious that Hamlin’s tire was disintegrating and throwing debris on the racing surface. I even gave the officials credit for that one:
Fast forward to lap 361, when Hamlin’s second tire failure brought out the yellow. Not only did Hamlin not hit the turn 2 wall when the tire went down, at no point did said tire disintegrate and throw debris. Despite that, NASCAR threw the yellow in the midst of a green flag pit cycle, trapping contenders Keselowski and Harvick a lap down. Maybe the coffee in the tower ran out?
It’s somehow escaped serious analysis that by breaking down the 600 into four stages, more playoff points are distributed to this race than any other on the 36-race tour. Now, I’m not opposed to the notion that crown jewel races should be subject to additional points, as such a practice is commonplace at race tracks across the country, both dirt and asphalt. But there needs to be an actual scheme in place, rather than the current “it’s the longest race, so we need more TV breaks” scheme. As of right now, the World 600 is the most valuable regular season race, despite both the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 also being regular season races. That’s… just… wrong.
Lastly, speaking of those TV breaks, possibly the most talked about part of Sunday’s race was the “moment of remembrance” held at the end of the second stage. It wasn’t nearly as choreographed as I was expecting; the cars came down to pit road and shut their engines off for a moment of silence while the remembrance flag was unveiled on the infield grass (er, turf). Seeing as how a second stage break was going to happen with or without said moment, such a moment was about as well-intentioned a use of a stage break as can be conceived. But, I have to agree that the moment came off a bit artificial:
We’re 2.5 hours into this race, only half way, and we’re stopping to do something that was done in the pre-race.
Support the troops but this doesn’t feel genuine. #nascar
— BrakeHard (@BrakeHard_) May 27, 2019
I do know that in doing said “moment,” NASCAR was trying to recapture what I would consider one of its finest moments in 2009. I was in the grandstands at Charlotte for the rain-delayed 600, which was run on Memorial Day Monday. In what was a truly spontaneous decision, NASCAR decided to stop that race to honor the already scheduled National Moment of Remembrance. And though Dave Blaney sat on the frontstretch for nearly a full minute with the engine on before they shut it off (it was the first time he went the distance with Phil Parsons’ glorified start-and-park team that year, he was understandably off his game), that moment came off sincere and dignified.
Manufacturing such a moment the day before the actual holiday is a bit gimmicky. And though the imagery was certainly dramatic (going from 20,000+ raging horsepower to silence is striking), such a scene did serve almost as a distraction from Charlotte’s widely known (and lauded) pre-race military display. The annual 600 pre-race show is as pro-military and moving a pre-race/pre-game as any sport has to offer. It’s truly breathtaking. Let it stand on its own merits.
More concerning, again, no matter how well-intentioned, this 600 may go down as the first NASCAR race with a halftime show. Brrr …
Author’s Note: There was WAY too much political bantering going on NASCAR Twitter this Sunday. It’s Memorial Day. Remembrance is not advocacy, nor is it political. Wave a flag, thank a veteran, do both or do neither. Just be respectful about it for God’s sake. And on a personal note, I’d like to say thank you to my uncle Franklin Payne for his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his continued patriotism.
Best Paint Scheme(s): Rick Ware Racing. Given that they endured a rough day on the race track (and feel constantly maligned by the collective Frontstretch staff) credit goes out to the RWR camp for A-grade paint scheme game.
— Rick Ware Racing (@RickWareRacing) May 26, 2019
Special shoutout to Cody Ware’s No. 51: That Flying Tiger scheme was badass with a capital B.
Bryce Harper Batting Award: Stenhouse. For the biggest swing and a miss I can remember seeing at any race track at any level of racing. Ever.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) May 27, 2019
Daenerys Targaryen Lifetime Achievement Trophy: Truex. It wasn’t enough to win. The little people needed to be stomped on as well.
What’s the Point(s): Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Truex, Hamlin, Logano and Elliott have all locked into the playoffs with race wins. If the playoffs started today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Bowyer, Blaney, Bowman, Almirola, Daniel Suarez, Johnson, Byron and Larson would point their way in. Larson currently holds a tiebreaker over Jones for the final playoff spot.
Where It Rated: It didn’t have the finish the Indy 500 boasted, but on a day where the Monaco Grand Prix was a tame affair, NASCAR’s longest race was also the best race run on motorsports’ biggest day.
Dust Off the VCR: The Cup Series next heads to the Pocono Raceway for a short 400-miler in the mountains. Coverage from the Tricky Triangle goes on-air at 2 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.
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