The Greatest Day of Racing did not disappoint. Ferrari won the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time since 2001, Takuma Sato scored an upset victory in the Indianapolis 500 and to cap it all off, Austin Dillon captured the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It’s hard to imagine how the day and night could have gone any better if you’re one of the hardcore 2 percent of the fans who watched all three races. It was that much fun.
Before Dillon’s victory in the Coca-Cola 600, the last time the No. 3 visited Victory Lane in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was Oct. 15, 2000, when Dale Earnhardt made a stirring late-race charge from mid-pack in the final four laps to win for the final time.
Dillon has driven the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Cup Chevrolet full time since 2014, yet last night was his first victory in 133 starts. It’s almost impossible to overstate how big that win was.
“Can you believe this, the Coke 600, Austin Dillon, the No. 3?” said Childress, Dillon’s car owner and grandfather. “… Having my grandson just made it that much more special. I know Dale is up there smiling down because he would want this win, he'd want to see it with Austin.”
Jim DedmonJim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Timing is everything
Dillon led only two laps, but they were the two most important laps — the final two. And those two laps were the first Dillon led this season since the Daytona 500. Eight drivers led as many or more laps than Dillon did in the Coca-Cola 600, but none of them were in a position to capitalize when Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel with two laps to go. Dillon was and that’s why he won.
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No, a Toyota didn’t win the Coca-Cola 600, but Toyota drivers did just about everything possible besides winning. Kyle Busch finished second in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and led 63 laps, while defending race-winner Martin Truex Jr. led a race-high 233 laps in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota. Busch’s teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin finished fourth and fifth, respectively. And Erik Jones had a career-best seventh-place finish, while fellow rookie Daniel Suarez wound up 11th.
Richard Childress Racing was won two Cup races this season and has drivers Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman all but locked into the playoffs already. As a team, RCR’s three drivers have combined to lead just 50 laps in the 12 points races contested so far this season.
The four-driver Joe Gibbs Racing squad, on the other hand is winless. That’s pretty hard to believe, when you factor in the fact that JGR’s drivers have combined to lead a whopping 892 laps this year. And three of the four JGR drivers are in the top 15 in points, while RCR’s Newman is 17th and Dillon 21st.
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Dale Jr. delivers
In the four points races prior to Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s average finish was 27.50. He came home 10th in the Coca-Cola 600, a huge improvement. Especially after his sub-par performance in the all-star race, Earnhardt and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team had a much better night this time out. It isn’t where they want to be — yet — but it was unquestionably a step in the right direction.
Conventional wisdom says you can’t win a race on the first lap, but you sure can lose it. The Coca-Cola 600 wasn’t quite that bad for Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, but it was close.
Elliott finished 38th and Keselowski 39th, completing just 19 of 400 laps each. Elliott was running fifth when the rear end broke on the lapped car of Jeffrey Earnhardt, which was in front of Elliott on the track. A piece flew off of Earnhardt’s car and Elliott hit the object, ripping out something underneath Elliott’s car, which caught fire. Elliott slowed and Keselowski got into oil first and into the back of Elliott second, taking two of the pre-race favorites out in the opening laps.