A long, strange trip doesn’t begin to describe Sunday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600.
The May Sprint Cup race has always been a 600-mile marathon – not a sprint – and this race was no different as obstacles kept coming throughout the evening. But when the checkered flag fell, Kevin Harvick stood victorious.
The win – his second in the series in four races – fell into Harvick’s hands when Kasey Kahne elected not to pit during the final caution period. Harvick, as well as the rest of the other drivers on the lead lap, elected to pit for tires for what would be the final 12-lap run.
“(Crew chief) Gil (Martin) made a great call at the end,” Harvick said. “We were able to put ourselves in position and survive until the point of when it was time to go.
“This is one of those nights you just know going into it you got to grind away lap after lap, just keep yourself on the lead lap, not make any mistakes. As you get towards the end of the race, you want to be more aggressive as you get onto pit road, get into your pit box. Early in the race, a pit-road penalty, a mistake in general, is going to cost you and you’re going to be trying to catch up all night. The more you can keep yourself in position to not make a mistake, maybe give up a spot or two here or there to keep your position is OK."
While the first 100 laps were fairly uneventful, with the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch trading the places at the point with Kahne, the race took on an entirely different complexion once the drive line snapped on the CAMCAT TV camera cable near the Turn 1 connection.
Marcos Ambrose received the brunt of the damage as the cable wrapped around the rear wheels on his No. 9 Ford.
“It was like getting attacked by a giant squid,” said Ambrose, who restarted 15th and salvaged a 10th-place finish. “It was just flapping and I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it was cords coming out of maybe one of (Mark Martin’s) tires or something, but I could just hear it flapping. And then it got caught up in the rear end and I lost my brakes, so it was a nightmare but we got through it."
Race leader Kyle Busch climbed from his car to see that the front left-side of his car was sliced behind the wheel. Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin also received damage to their cars.
“Something fell apart and of course it fell apart on us,” Kyle Busch said.
“This is crazy if a TV camera just took us out,” his crew chief Dave Rogers replied.
Harvick thought he was seeing things.
“Hell, the first time I drove by I said, ‘Hell, my career is over, my eyes have taken a crap.’ I saw this streak go by me,” Harvick said. “’What in the hell was that?’ I always have this thing with my eyes. It’s one of the biggest things we have as drivers. You got to believe in your eyes. I tell myself, ‘You got to believe what you saw.’
“I got to the start/finish line, I eased off the gas, I knew what I had seen the lap before, I was hoping it wasn’t my last race, I was hoping what I saw was right. I let off at the start/finish line, there was that black streak again. I was looking for it. You could see the cable hanging down.”
After the race ended, Harvick’s concern was with the 10 fans that were injured in the incident – seven of whom were treated at the track and the three who were taken to a local hospital and later released.
Teams were offered 15 minutes to repair their cars while track workers detached the cable. Although Busch retained the lead when the race went green on Lap 131 and held on for 45 additional laps, his engine failed on Lap 257 – one lap after Dale Earnhardt Jr. also retired with an engine issue. Busch dropped to 11th in the standings following his third DNF of the season. Earnhardt lost two spots and is currently sixth.
Oil from Earnhardt’s No. 88 engine set off another round of pit stops. Kenseth, who had the dominant car at that juncture of the race, elected to remain on the track while the others on the lead lap came to pit.
Debris continued to slow the progress of the race, but contact between lovebirds Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick collected defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski on Lap 319 – leaving him with his first DNF since the 2012 Daytona 500. Although Keselowski was never a factor at Charlotte, his 36th-place result plummeted his team three spots to 10th in the standings.
Harvick took the lead for the first time after the second red flag when Kurt Busch’s car stalled due to loose battery cable.
“We’re (screwed)," said Busch, who would later forge a comeback. "There’s no power to the car, we need a pushtruck or something. The day was going too smooth. I knew something was going to happen."
The caution was ignited by a seven-car wreck triggered by contact between Aric Almirola and Mark Martin. Almirola took Martin and Jeff Gordon three wide exiting the frontstretch. Gordon suffered the worst in the incident, which resulted in the four-time champ’s third DNF of the season and his exit outside of the top 12 in the standings.
In less than 10 minutes, the race resumed, on Lap 332, but before the field could gain momentum Jimmie Johnson collided with Juan Pablo Montoya in Turn 4. Kenseth, who was mired in the field from the team’s earlier faux pas of staying on the track, was collected in the melee along with Paul Menard and Tony Stewart.
“You shouldn’t have been back there to start with,” said crew chief Jason Ratcliff to console Kenseth, who had led 112 laps prior to the wreck. "That’s how one bad call can snowball right there. We were just getting it back, getting a shot at it.”
Harvick held the lead until he pit on Lap 341. He cycled back to second-place – behind Kahne – before the final caution when Kahne remained on the track and a two-tire pit stop by the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team provided Harvick with the necessary track position to attack for the win.
Harvick took off on the restart, stormed into the lead and then held off Kahne at the finish by 1.490 seconds with Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano rounding out the top five.
“As we came down to the end, it came down to a restart," Harvick said. "We had the track position when (Kurt Busch’s team) had their problem. We were the leader. We saw that (Kahne) was able to really go on the restarts. We were tight. Gil made a good adjustment on the car. We were better. I wish we would have had one more stab at it to make it even better yet.
“In the end it was good enough to win the race. That’s all that matters.”