NASCAR

Coca-Cola 600 victories are coveted

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Rea White

Rea White has been covering NASCAR full time since 1998. She has won awards from press agencies in Alabama and North Carolina and formerly served as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Follow her on Twitter.

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CONCORD, N.C.

Prestige. Pride. Tenacity.

Racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a mixture of the three. Today’s Coca-Cola 600 is one of the most prestigious races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. The longest race of the season on one of the series' most well-known tracks, it’s the kind of race that challenges crews, tests equipment and pushes drivers to the edge.

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It’s also one of the most coveted wins in the sport.

Interestingly enough, it’s not a victory many of the drivers leading the Sprint Cup field can claim. It really is, statistically speaking, a race that anyone can win.

Of the 12 drivers leading the standings, only five have wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson sets the standard. Three of his six wins at Charlotte — which is tops for active drivers at the track — came in the 600, but he last won the event in 2005. Kurt Busch and his Penske Racing team are the defending champions of the event. Mark Martin won the race in 2002, the only 600 trophy in his four Cup wins at Charlotte. And Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag in this race in 2000.

Tony Stewart also has a win at Charlotte, but not in the May race at the track.

Just why is that? Why is it that several of the top Cup contenders, men who are perennially chasing the championship, have been unable to master this track?

Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards have wins in the All-Star race, but not in a points-paying race at the track. Why?

“(It’s) not a racetrack that we’ve been stellar at over the 10 years I’ve been in the car,” Harvick said. “I know (teammate Jeff) Burton has had some success here. Clint (Bowyer) has run well here at times, but we all fought pretty much the same things last week (in the All-Star race at the track). They didn’t really find anything to make their car better. I felt like we made our car a tremendous amount better toward the end of the night. We’ll see what happens today. It’s so hard to really tell where you are at in practice because the practices are kind of a waste of time with the heat of the day and then rolling into the night.

“Really the only thing we can go off of is the first part of the race for Sunday with the timing of the practices and things. We just have to go off of last week — that’s why being a part of the All-Star weekend is pretty important, especially when you don’t feel like you are as competitive as you need to be.”

Sunday’s race is difficult for a variety of factors, not the least of which are the simple facts that it is a long and hot showdown. Starting at 6 p.m. ET, the race will take off with temperatures starting out at near 90 degrees, then steadily dropping over the course of the race. (Predictions are for the temperature to be 79 degrees at 10 p.m., and 74 degrees at 11 p.m.)

That will cause the track conditions to change, cars to react differently, and crew chiefs and drivers to have constant communication as they try to keep abreast of those shifts — and, of course, the competition.

It’s part of what makes winning this race such a badge of pride for teams and drivers.

Martin remembers that feeling well. He also remembers just the sense of running at the track for the first time in 1982.

“The air felt kind of like it did in 1982 when I ran my first one,” he said. “I remember, it was really hot, and it felt really hot (Thursday) out there in the sun, so it kind of reminded me of Charlotte in May. I’m kind of glad that we run the 600 miles ending in the dark based on how tough this thing can be in the middle of the afternoon with that blazing sun. It does make it a little easier on us.”

Easier on the body, but not any easier to win.

That is a challenge no matter what start time, or what conditions, drivers face in this race.

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Still, some are optimistic.

Edwards, for his part, is entering the weekend with a new level of confidence at the track. Not only has he been strong at Charlotte this year — after all, he did win the All-Star race — he also has an average finish at the track of 13.1 in the Cup races there.

He seemed somewhat taken aback to be told Roush Fenway Racing had not won a race at Charlotte since Martin’s 600 win in 2002.

Still, he feels this weekend could give Roush Fenway much better results.

“That’s a stat I did not know. I’d say we’ve got a really good opportunity to end that streak, but I know I have run really poorly here,” Edwards said. “There have been some races where we’ve really, really struggled. I think the progress here is emblematic of the progress we’ve made overall. I think it’s a really good sign because this has a place we’ve obviously struggled.

“I didn’t know it was that bad, so for us to run the way we are right now here, I think, is another little piece of evidence that we have made real progress. This is not just a flash in the pan. We have become better, and that’s good.”

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