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Coca-Cola 500 not just another weekend at the track

Last wekends’s 50th running of the Coca-Cola 600 has been a staple of the Memorial Day holiday weekend since 1961.  NASCAR’s longest race is also arguably its most unique. It starts in the day, races through twilight, and ends in the night.  As a result, the longest race is long on strategy, putting a premium on the performance of not only the driver, but the crew as well. Dodging flying chunks of asphalt was the order of the day in the first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the sport's first-ever 600 mile race on an oval track back in 1960.  It was a race of attrition that saw only 18 of the 60 drives who started the race running at the finish.  

Driving a 1960 Chevrolet, Johnson won the inaugural event by more than four laps in a race that was originally intended to be run on Memorial Day weekend, but was postponed until June 19 because the race track wasn’t ready. Jack Smith opened a five lap lead and appeared the likely winner until a piece of asphalt from the new track broke loose and punctured his fuel tank, eventually knocking him out of the race. That allowed Johnson to build his winning margin.

Four hundred laps and 600 miles usually takes approximately four and a half hours behind the wheel at the 1.5 mile Lowe’s Motor Speedway.  Add late May heat and humidity, the daylight start, mid race dusk, and racing into the night with lap speeds in the mid 180 MPH range and the race presents a unique challenge.  Conquering the 600 miler requires patience, endurance and focus in equal measure.   ”It’s tough on equipment and tough mentally,” said Jeff Gordon, a three time Coca Cola 600 winner. “You have to mentally stay in the game and be focused for 600 miles.” 

Jeff Burton, the 1999 600 winner said, “The late afternoon start throws a wrench at you because your eating and sleeping schedules change.  It’s a perfect storm of stuff going on that makes the race a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, there are no excuses. You have to be physically ready no matter what.”

Through the years, several of the sport's notables have made their driving debut on the Cup circuit in the Coca Cola 600, including Dale Earnhardt in 1975, Michael Waltrip in 1985, Elliot Sadler 1988, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999. 

Several of the sport's top drivers scored their first Cup series wins in the Coca Cola 600, beginning with the 1960 “Rookie of the Year,” David Pearson who drove to his first victory in the track's second 600 miler in 1961.  Pearson qualified third, and ran a fast steady pace, passing Richard Petty on lap 272 for the lead.  Pearson would go on to win 105 races in 574 Cup starts, running only a partial schedule for most of his 27 years  on the circuit.

Jeff Gordon would duplicate Pearson’s performance 32 years later, when Gordon, then the reigning “Rookie of the Year” drove to his first Cup win in the 1994, Coca Cola 600.
 
Others who earned their first career win on the Cup circuit in the Memorial Day weekend classic are Bobby Labonte in 1995, Matt Kenseth in 2000 and most recently Casey Mears in 2007.

Last Sunday at about 6:30 p.m., 24 hours after this year's race was scheduled to start, Michael Waltrip Racing driver David Reutimann added his name to the list of drivers who notched their first Cup series win in the Coca Cola 600.  The big story of  weekend was rain. The leaders all pitted when rain began again, Reutimann stayed on the track. The race was called official just past the half way mark. Reutimann wins the Coca Cola 340.

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