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Coca-Cola 600 Viewer's Guide

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

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In 21 years of covering races at Lowe's Motor Speedway, I've never covered a race with so many variables and unknowns as Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 (5 p.m. ET on FOX). Last year was rough at Lowe's, with 38 cautions in two Nextel Cup races after the track was ground down and levigated. I also remember numerous tire failures during the Goodyear-Hoosier Tire war in the 1980s. But I really don't have a handle on this race or what we're going to see on Sunday night. It's odd. The drivers say they love the new surface and the new tire. But then I hear them say that they don't like the whole package combined. It's hard to figure out who is telling truth and who is being politically correct. One organization has already done the math. If they're in a long, green-flag stretch, they anticipate that they will be on pit road every 17 minutes. They also anticipate doing close to 20 pit stops. As a way to combat fatigue among crew members on pit road, they're planning on taking right-side tires on one stop and left-side tires on the next stop because the tires are so hard. With all of these unknown factors, the drivers and crews are on pins and needles.

Who to Watch

  • Jimmie Johnson: Right now, I don't think anyone can beat Johnson He has won the last four points races at Lowe's Motor Speedway and five of the last six. Then on the new pavement during the Nextel All-Star Challenge with a harder tire, he was still able to win. Before the race, Johnson said he felt like he was one of two or three guys who really knew how to drive the old racetrack, but he wasn't sure anymore. Well, from the time he said that until the race was over last Saturday night, he figured it out.
  • Kevin Harvick: The No. 29 team and the entire Richard Childress Racing operation has made so much progress this year that Harvick will be a factor in the longest race of the year.
  • Mark Martin: For some reason, we tend to overlook Martin in the points race, but he's got four wins and 20 top-10 finishes at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior has six top-10s at Lowe's with a best finish of third. Growing up as close as he did to that racetrack and watching his dad race there as a child, the Coca-Cola 600 means a lot to him. But beyond the sentimentality, the No. 8 race team has made huge strides. It's easy to make a pick based on emotion, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did in fact win the race.
  • Matt Kenseth: It's the kind of race in which Kenseth, who has a win at Lowe's, should thrive. He's got a cool head on his shoulders, and he gives great feedback. It's a race that sets up nicely for him.
  • Tony Stewart: Smoke has nine top-10 finishes and a win in 14 Lowe's starts. I see no reason why he won't be competitive again. It's not that he's been outstanding there, but he's always been in the money.
  • Jeff Gordon: It's hard for me not to include Gordon with seven poles, four wins and 15 top 10s. That's pretty hard to ignore.
  • Bobby Labonte: My darkhorse pick ran awfully well at Atlanta until he had an engine problem. He won his very first Cup race in 1995 at Lowe's, and he's got two wins and 16 top 10s there. They've had some engine issues, and as Labonte said early in the season, it's going to be an up and down year for his team. But I do think they could be a factor on Sunday night.
  • What to Watch

  • The No. 48 team: Two years ago, Johnson led 334 laps. You would think that they unloaded fast and dominated the race, but before the race, crew chief Chad Knaus told me the trick is keeping up with the track. He said they were prepared for a lot of different contingencies, including barometric pressure. They made adjustments on every single pit stop that night. It wasn't as though they just went out there and let it rip. From Johnson's feedback to Knaus' reaction to the actual execution on the car, they made the right decision every single time.
  • Pit problems: It's a race of flurries. We might see a rash of cautions early, a long green-flag run and a flurry of cautions late. We always talk about how the guy who isn't good early in the race can adapt or adjust to the track and make it better late. Teams will have more opportunities for adjustments which means more chances to make mistakes.
  • Pit strategy: As hard as these tires are, will we see teams just come down and take fuel only? Teams can run 100 laps on tires. We should see guys just take gas only and go.
  • A second groove: By Sunday night at 5:40 p.m. ET, we hope there will be a lot of rubber on the racetrack. It remains to be seen whether the drivers will work in a groove and be able to pass. If they can't, they're not going to force it. In the all-star race, Michael Waltrip was riding in Turn 4 — probably in a line that he's run 1,000 times on that racetrack — and it didn't work, so drivers won't try anything that will make them spin.

    Pit perspective

    Even with the new pavement, Larry McReynolds says Charlotte is still the most weather- and temperature-sensitive Nextel Cup racetrack. We always talk about keeping up with the racetrack. When Tony Stewart won his first Cup championship in 2002, he finished sixth in the 600. I was in his pit area, and his car went from loose to tight back to loose. Stewart said, "Whatever you guys did to my racecar, you did it a little too much." Every time Stewart's team adjusted the car, it wasn't exactly what he needed, but he turned what could have been a mediocre night into a top-10 finish. It wasn't very glamorous, and he didn't do a lot of media interviews. But they're the kind of nights that win championships.
    Speed Mail Steve
    It's extremely difficult to keep with changes over 600 miles at Lowe's Motor Speedway, but you can't give up. If you adjust a little bit too much one way, you've got to figure out what to do to stay in the game. As Darrell Waltrip said on the NASCAR on FOX conference call this week you have to be there at the end regardless of how many pit stops there are and how many problems you have on the track and pit road. It's like the quarterback who throws an interception early in the game or the pitcher that gives up a home run. You've got to shake it off and get back. You can't let a pit-stop mistake or a bad chassis adjustment get you down because it's a long night.

    Finish line

    Was Matt Kenseth angry after last Saturday night's race? Absolutely. Did Tony Stewart think that Kenseth's assessment was incorrect? Absolutely. That's the Nextel All-Star Challenge. When you put $1 million out there for the winner, don't act surprised when somebody goes home angry. The Coca-Cola 600 is a whole different animal. Points are so valuable with only 26 races to get into the Chase for the Nextel Cup. If you want to be a championship contender, you can't act on any grudges against another driver or drivers. With 15 races until the Chase, there's no margin for error. Greg Biffle has made up a lot of points in the last two races, but other guys haven't been that fortunate or gotten hot so everyone has to keep emotions in check on pit road and in the racecar.


    NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years, and he gives kids a close look at a real stock car and its driver with Ryan's Racecar, a 30-minute video/DVD. For more information, go to RyansRacecar.com

  • Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart

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