NASCAR & Auto Racing

Best NASCAR race of the year? The 600 finally delivers, even facing skepticism

A thousand things could be written about Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, be it the insufferable heat, the unexplainable tire troubles or even, especially, the wild four-wide pass with four laps left that decided the race. (“Wild” probably doesn’t do that maneuver justice, by the way. Maybe “ludicrous” or “unimaginable”?)

But for everything that transpired Sunday, one feeling stands out above the rest.

That didn’t suck.

Blunt? Sure.

Accurate? You’re darn right.

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To fully understand that sentiment, some context:

In recent years, including last week, the Coca-Cola 600 has come under attack. What was once widely hailed as one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races — right up there with the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 at Darlington — the 600 lost most of its luster. Back when stock cars were still that and not souped-up showroom models, this race was meant to test the boundaries of engineering ingenuity. A driver might be exhausted after 600 miles at such high speeds, but he could persevere.

Engines in the 1980s, not so much.

And so we arrive at present day, void of that captivating man-versus-machine uncertainty and void of any real interest. In 2016, Martin Truex Jr. led a race-record 392 of 400 laps en route to his first 600 title — it was a snoozefest. The next year, various contenders ran out of fuel and left Austin Dillon as the last man standing. Yawn. Then last season, Kyle Busch essentially pulled a Truex do-over, dominating for 377 laps before taking the checkered flag.

Who wants to watch that?

Then, a breakthrough. Last year at Charlotte, NASCAR tested an experimental new rules package during the All-Star Race aimed at eliminating that follow-the-leader, ho-hum brand of racing. Basically, NASCAR got tired of boring.

Sunday, NASCAR got arguably its best race of the entire season.

“For me this is the wildest race we’ve ever won,” said Cole Pearn, Truex’s crew chief. “I think that’s inherent with this rules package, for sure.”

So, why was it such a good race? Even the CliffsNotes recap makes that clear: 16 cautions, multiple wrecks, cars bouncing off the wall, and — oh yeah — a four-lap shootout at the end to decide the race. Heck, there were 30 freakin’ lead changes!

Of course, none was more important than the final one. With eight laps to go, Brad Keselowski spun out in Turn 4 to bring out the caution flag. At the time, Truex had a small lead over reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano. Then came the restart, where both drivers had to pass David Ragan and Ryan Newman to re-take the lead. Truex bided his time behind Newman, while Logano filled in behind a surging Kyle Busch.

As Busch filled the space between Newman and Ragan, Logano still stuck behind that trio, Truex looked for an alternative option. Then it opened up — a gap on the far inside, even if that meant going four-wide at one point.

“At that point those three guys just kind of stalled out, and I had just enough momentum,” Truex explained. “I just yanked it left and said, ‘Here’s my chance.’ There was a hole to go there, and I had just enough of a run to clear a few of them getting into (Turn) 3 and then off of (Turn) 4 I was just able to sneak up in front of (Logano’s) 22.

“I mean, by like a quarter of an inch.”

Logano gave Truex a shove but couldn’t quite get past him. (A bonus bit of drama: Truex and Logano have bad blood dating back to the fall Martinsville race last year that earned Logano his championship berth.) Then Truex just had to hold on to win his third race in five weekends and second 600.

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And boy, how different those two 600s were from one another.

“Definitely way crazier tonight,” Truex said. “I mean, ‘16 was just like lights out. It just was like kind of going through the motions. Everything went perfectly. Everything went exactly the way we needed it to, and that’s why we were able to lead so many laps.

“Tonight was a challenge to say the least.”

By the time Truex was done celebrating in Victory Lane, the early indicators were in: finally, after years of stalling out, NASCAR had a winner. This current rules package has been oft-criticized, oft-demeaned, but it worked to perfection Sunday. Fans milling about pit road after the fact praised “the best race at Charlotte in years.” Social media was ablaze with positive feedback, too. When the television ratings for this race came in, there was an 8 percent jump in viewership as further validation.

The Coca-Cola 600, with all its tradition and history, will almost certainly maintain its place in NASCAR history for years to come. Even as the sport looks to revolutionize and re-discover the magic that made it so popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, and even on nights unlike Sunday where there isn’t as much action, there will be a place for this race.

But Sunday, all the puzzle pieces came together for NASCAR: an exciting race, an even better finish, and the culmination of a year’s worth of tinkering with aerodynamics.

In moments like these, maybe it’s best to let wiser men speak for us. Joe Gibbs, Truex’s team owner who was named to the Hall of Fame last Wednesday, certainly suffices:

“There was so much happening tonight,” Gibbs said. “I felt like for the weekend, just really super for our sport. A great, great attendance. I think it was an exciting race for a lot of ways, and so I thought it was a big deal for us, and I think a big step forward for our racing, too.

“Certainly tonight, I think it’s one of our best nights.”

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Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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