Patience, strategy pay at Charlotte
Joey Logano was lost for much of the race, running deep in the pack and frantically trying to help crew chief Greg Zipadelli figure out a way to improve his car.
AJ Allmendinger started well but drifted outside the top 15 for a long stretch. Regan Smith was mired in the middle of the pack. Kevin Harvick ran outside the top 20 for an opening segment and, even when he moved into the top 10, didn’t seem like a threat to win.
Yet, the group showed that perseverance pays off. Teams that keep digging and keep fighting to improve can sometimes reap the rewards. Especially when strategy comes into play and they’ve worked themselves into position to contend for a win.
That was perhaps never clearer than Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Coca-Cola 600 turned into a fuel-mileage battle as it extended to 402 laps after a crash led to a green-white-checker finish. But as fuel strategies came into play, so did those of some teams that had not been as stout over the course of the race.
As the saying in NASCAR goes, you have to be in position to contend to take a win.
And an unlikely host of drivers were just that Sunday night. Not unlikely because they don’t generally contend but because, for varying reasons, they had not been doing so Sunday. That changed, both as tanks ran dry and as strategy and improvements came into play.
It could serve as a lesson in never giving up in a race.
Just look at Harvick, who won. Admittedly not a fan of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway — “It's Charlotte. Even though we won, I'm still miserable,” he said — and revealing he griped his way through much of the race, Harvick didn’t feel in command of the race at any point Sunday night.
So even attitude was working against this team in the beginning.
“When we pull into Charlotte, I apologize before I even get to the racetrack because there's nothing -- this is a great racetrack,” said Harvick, who won the 2007 all-star race there. “It's a great facility, and I know everybody loves coming here because it's close to home. For me it's been a struggle since Day 1 of my career. Well, I shouldn't say that. We finished second the first time I came here, and that was about it. So, for me, it's just been that thing in my mind, that one racetrack that just frustrates the hell out of me that I can't figure out.
“When they threw the green flag . . . we'd fought the same thing for last week and this week, and I said, ‘Well, we haven't fixed it in two weeks,’ and (crew chief) Gil (Martin) said, ‘Well, we've got four more hours and we're going to fix you right up.’ Usually when he says something like that, it always comes back to haunt me.”
It did once more. As he discussed his latest victory, Harvick lauded the effort of this team over the course of the race and the management of the race.
They put themselves in position to save fuel. And that was the difference as leader Greg Biffle peeled off for a final fuel stop entering the final restart, then the next two leaders, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr., also ran out of fuel.
“Just got to thank everybody on our Budweiser Chevrolet team,” Harvick said. “They do this a lot. They give us chances to win races and put ourselves in position.”
Others did the same. While those who led the most laps didn’t fare well in the end — Matt Kenseth led a race-high 103 laps and finished 14th, Carl Edwards led 61 laps and finished 16th, Kyle Busch led 55 laps before crashing twice, and Biffle led 50 laps before needing fuel before the final restart and finished 13th — those who played the strategy game well came out on top.
Logano struggled mightily for much of the race. He was at or near 30th for the opening segment and moved into the top 20s until well past the midway point. He moved up on pit strategy, then once more ran outside the top 20 until the final 20-plus laps. And then he finished third — proof that strategy and patience pay.
Still, he pointed out he didn’t have the best car to contend with, even at the end of the race.
“I felt like we got the balance of the car closer,” he said. “It wasn't going any faster. We just didn't have the grip in the car. So we really need to change a lot of things to try to find some speed back in our race car.
“If you didn't get them on the first couple laps of a restart, you might as well ride around the rest of the run. I think that's why a lot people did a lot of pit strategy, trying to get their car up there. It was a lot different race than what we normally see in Charlotte.”
But still one in which that methodical approach paid off with a top finish.
“This is the longest 600 I think I have ever had,” Logano crew chief Greg Zipadelli said. “But it ended up all right. So we’ll take it and go.”
So will Smith, who finished eighth and won his first career Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in May.
"I guess you can say the longest race of the season paid off in our favor," he said. "We were patient, and crew chief Pete Rondeau made the right calls on the pit box . . . We kept our cool and didn't quit fighting for track position. The pit strategy was perfect, which was the main reason we made a pretty good leap near the end of the race."