Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2022 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

What happened?

Denny Hamlin held off Kyle Busch in a second overtime attempt to win the longest distance race in NASCAR Cup Series history in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 30. Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell rounded out the top five.

It’s Hamlin’s first career Coca-Cola 600 victory and second win of 2022.

How did it happen?

With 10 laps to go, Hamlin wasn’t even in the top five, nor in anybody’s conversation for the win for that matter.

Instead, it was the dirt racing veteran duo of Kyle Larson and Chase Briscoe dueling for the lead in the closing laps of the eventual 413-lap endurance race.

Larson, who had undergone just about every setback one can possibly throw at a driver without taking him out of the race up to that point, was leading over the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. He ran his tried-and-true high line, and it was working splendidly against the hard-charging Briscoe in his defense of the race lead.

Briscoe was running out of time and knew he had very limited opportunities left to try to overtake the reigning series champion. So, with two laps to go, much like he had the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway earlier in the year, Briscoe made one last attempt at the lead.

Also like Bristol, he wrecked himself in the result.

The ensuing caution forced Larson and the rest of the field to pit road for fresh tires to replace their 50-lap old ones. Larson restarted in the lead next to Ross Chastain, who led the most laps of the night with 153. Larson cleared Chastain and seemed to be sailing away for his second consecutive 600-mile victory.

Then Austin Dillon, who literally advanced his position from sixth to second within 100 feet on the backstretch with a run, flew to the inside of the defending Larson. The No. 3 got loose on Larson’s inside, forcing the two to lose their momentum and allowing Chastain and Hamlin to flank them. Four-wide almost never works in the tri-oval at Charlotte, and Sunday with two laps to go was no different.

Hamlin was the only driver in the top five to escape the crash unscathed.

With a final restart, Hamlin had Chastain with a damaged racecar restart to his outside. Teammate Busch was behind him. When Hamlin cleared Chastain, Busch slingshot his way to Hamlin’s vacant outside line. The duo was side-by-side to the white flag, Hamlin finally cleared Busch in turn 2, and it was over from there.

Who stood out?

Larson at one point described his Sunday as “the worst race in his life.”

Larson, after crashing during practice and being forced to miss qualifying, started last of the 37-car field to begin his 600-mile campaign.

Shortly after, the No. 5 team was penalized on pit road for leaving the box with equipment. Then, Larson hit the wall. Then, he was penalized again, and then he spun, then penalized again, and then his car actually caught on fire. 

That was probably out of order, but you get the point.

After an abysmal first half of NASCAR’s marathon race, Larson was understandably dejected. However, crew chief Cliff Daniels reassured a demoralized No. 5 team and driver with one of the most uplifting speeches ever given to race team by a crew chief.

And as the sun went down, the moon came up, and the sky changed. So did his luck – mostly.

With less than 50 laps to go, Larson had survived all of the drama and carnage to place himself in position to take the lead from Chastain. It wasn’t until two laps to go after a challenge from Briscoe that Larson’s night threw one more screwball at the reigning series champion.

When it was all said and done, Larson finished ninth. While many may argue it should’ve resulted in a win, with everything that happened to the team all night, maybe ninth feels like a win.

Who fell flat?

Early on, Bubba Wallace was also standing out.

On Sunday night, the Toyotas were once again showing speed right where they left off from their win at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago.

That included 23XI Racing driver and flagship car of Wallace, whose night, thanks to some confusion from the team, went from great to bad, to worse.

Wallace started seventh – his best qualifying result so far in 2022 – and even led a lap while racing against fellow Toyota driver Kyle Busch for the lead on lap 40.

It was a solid day for Wallace, and he even finished fifth in stage one. He was running in the top 10 for most of his night in the 600-mile endurance event showing the speed they had shown so far in 2022. Alas, it only lasted until lap 127.

The spin put Wallace behind but the 23XI driver soon found himself back in the top 15 with the rest of the Toyotas, making his way through the field again.

But he made his return to the front too soon.

Despite every else’s misfortune, however, Wallace wasn’t too heavily damaged. According to the team, it was believed the No. 23 Toyota may actually still have had the speed it showed earlier.

This is when the details get a little fuzzy.

Wallace came back out after being on the damaged vehicle policy clock for less than the allotted six minutes, meaning that as long as he reached the minimum required speed, NASCAR would allow him to stay in the race.

However, crew chief Bootie Barker told Wallace not to get too close to the field on the restart, as it was near the end of stage two and he expected a crash to occur in the stage end craziness. As a result, Wallace slowed down, and, supposedly and consequently, never reached the minimum speed, thus closing out the crash clock.

Wallace and the 23XI team were informed of their infraction and were told they would have to go behind the wall. Their day was done.

It’s a little confusing, and perhaps this leaves something to be said about the damaged vehicle policy and the crash clock, which has been somewhat controversial in the last few years. However, Barker himself admitted to making a mistake and the fact that Wallace was showing competitive enough speed, one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if he had been allowed to keep racing.

What did this race prove?

The Coca-Cola 600 is fun again, and it needs to stay that way.

On Sunday night, the Coca Cola 600 went on for over five hours of racing. It was the longest distance Cup Series race in history with overtime restarts lengthening it to a whopping 619 miles. With a combination of yellows from tire issues, spins, big crashes and even a red flag delaying the 600-mile event, the crown jewel race dragged on long enough for it to feel like a return to its endurance race status. It forced race teams, drivers and fans alike to stay awake and focused to endure long enough to reach the end.

Good.

There’s been a lot of talk about shortening some of these races to keep them from dragging on too long. For many of the racetracks that still host 500-mile races, it seems to be a legitimate argument. Some races really do seem to go on for too long and shortening them to 400 miles rather than 500 seems to be a reasonable solution.

But not for the 600.

The Coca-Cola 600 is a crown jewel event. Yes, it is special to many drivers and teams because of its proximity to most of their headquarters in North Carolina, and with the introduction of the ROVAL, it’s also the only race on the Charlotte oval racing surface throughout the season.

But most of all, the 600 is an endurance race. It’s supposed to be an endurance race. It’s the longest race of the year. That’s why it’s special.

Sunday night’s Charlotte shootout showed the return of the uniqueness and enjoyment of the crown jewel event again. The last few years have been plagued by dominant cars and poor performing rules packages saturating a long 600-mile race leaving many to ask if racing 400 laps at Charlotte is really worth it.

But we forget that while some years aren’t truly memorable, the 600 is a test for drivers. It’s not about action or rivalries or any of the short track racing stuff – even if we do get that sometimes.

It’s about endurance. How long can these drivers stay focused? How long can their cars and teams last? That challenge in itself is entertaining. At least it is once a year.

This year brought that and then put the challenge back in the hands of the driver with the difficulty of the Next Gen car, and we definitely noticed.

Paint scheme of the race

In a field that’s filled to the brim with paint schemes featuring the stars and stripes, it’s kind of hard to pick and choose which ones look the best. They all looked great.

But that’s the problem. If they’re all special, none of them are.

So, with having to narrow them down, one thing seemed to stand out. One word – camouflage.

Stars and stripes will always look good on a race car, but in a field that is slathered in red, white and blue, one must look at the patterns and designs themselves rather than the colors to differentiate paint schemes.

Corey LaJoie‘s No. 7 USO Chevrolet may have had an awful weekend after he backed it into the wall twice, but a camouflage pattern with white highlights seemed to stick out the most.

Albeit not by that much.

Better than last time?

It’s not really up for debate.

Last year, the Coca-Cola 600 saw 24 lead changes between 13 different drivers. In comparison, 2022 had 31 lead changes among 13 leaders. Not a huge difference, right?

Except in 2021, there were only two unscheduled caution flags the entire race, meaning most of those lead changes were during green flag pit stops. Eventual winner Larson won every stage and led 327 laps. That’s nearly 82% of the race.

On Sunday, however, the first two unscheduled yellows occurred within the first 35 laps. That trend continued.

There were 18 cautions total in the 2022 edition of the race – just four short of the Cup Series record – meaning plenty of restarts and tire strategy took place. Of course, there was lots of competition too.

With the exception of Texas Motor Speedway, every 1.5-mile track the Cup Series has gone to in 2022 has seen a giant swing upward in competition and overall racing quality.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is no different. As mentioned before, the Coca-Cola 600 is fun again, and the arrival of new competitive teams like Trackhouse Racing Team makes competition more diverse than the last few years, and the Next Gen car has made sure passing is not only possible but normal.

What’s next?

NASCAR heads to the gateway.

The NASCAR Cup Series travels to Worldwide Technology Raceway for its inaugural race at the Illinois racetrack. Cup qualifying begins on Saturday, June 4 at 11 a.m. ET with the Enjoy Illinois 300 being televised live on FOX Sports 1 on Sunday, June 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and wrote for IMSA in 2020 after graduating with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Bill B

The newness of the car, the weekly issues with tires/wheels/hubs, and drivers making mistakes both on and off the track, certainly made the race interesting. This was definitely a race of attrition, which is kind of what’s expected when you schedule a 600-mile race. For once (in a long time) it actually happened.

Interesting that all 3 premier races had red flags yesterday. I doubt that has happened many times.

Briscoe is paid to go for it but if he keeps wrecking other guys when he does it, he is going to get a bad rep.

Reddick just can’t grab that golden ring.

I am dreading next race, Michael Waltrip in the booth. Looks like FOX is going to waterboard us next week.

janice

when i heard michael waltrip was going to be booth guest next week i cringed.

DoninAjax

I yelled “WHY????” Who told them he was wanted in the booth? Whoever it was they lied.

Echo

Bubba has raced how many years now and doesn’t know you have to maintain a set minimum speed, lololol. Bootie too. Hilarious imo
Park it bubba.

DoninAjax

That sure messed up one of the FOX story lines for the event decided on in the morning meeting. I’m surprised they didn’t show a shot of the car in the garage like they did with Johnson.

Iceman202290

He was doing what he was told to do….not sure how you make that to be on him. Chase Elliot failed to meet it as well so guess we can make the same statement about him as well right?

stubbscupseriesdotcom

As Iceman said below, he was doing what he was told. Chase did the same thing so I guess that means he should park it as well.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR has a tough choice: Chase or Bubba? Mr. H or Reverend Joe?

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