Parks Pit Report: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

Memorial Day weekend is all about cookouts, family, and most of all, honor.  Honoring the soldiers of the United States Armed Forces who are currently serving, have served in the past, or have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

For NASCAR, it’s their most patriotic weekend of the entire season.  They are at their home track, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and it’s the season’s longest race.  It starts under bright sunshine, fades to the twilight and ends under the lights with the stars in the sky.  On Sunday, 43 drivers were set to tackle the “Beast of the Southeast” and go for the win in the Coca-Cola 600.

Ryan Newman led the field to the green flag and got out front quickly, however outside pole-sitter Kurt Busch looked for the lead as well.  After the air pressures in the tires built up, the No. 2 Dodge found the lead on lap 12.

Newman would begin falling back as last week’s winner soon opened up over a second on the competition, and looked to be the car to beat in the early going.  However, with the track expected to go through a major transition over the course of the evening and night, it was too early to tell.

Soon, pit stops were becoming the name of the game as after 50 laps, the leaders decided to come in for new tires and a full tank of fuel.  Busch came in on lap 52, handing the lead over to Joey Logano as the field began to cycle through their services.  After about five laps of green-flag services, Busch found himself back out front and was poised to pull ahead of the field once again.

That trip was haulted as Juan Pablo Montoya spun out of the second turn after getting loose, bringing out the race’s first caution of the afternoon, soon to be evening.  Some cars decided to pit for some adjustments, while others decided to stay on track.

Denny Hamlin decided to stay out and took his first lead of the evening and led the field to the green flag.  The problem was that behind him, the No. 2 of Busch was coming once again.  One lap later, the No. 2 Dodge found it’s way back to the front, taking his second lead of the race.

The caution flew a second time on lap 91 as Marcos Ambrose got loose coming out of turn 4.  He missed the wall, but flattened his tires and the debris was what forced officials to throw the yellow flag.

A majority of the leaders came in, most electing just right-side tires on their cars.  The winner off pit road this time was not Busch, but instead was Jimmie Johnson.  With six wins at this track, Johnson declared the Charlotte Motor Speedway to be his yard, and he was the big dog.

Johnson brought the field to green on lap 95, and he quickly got a challenge from Busch on the restart.  After a three lap side-by-side battle, Johnson finally assumed the lead and began to pull out on the field.

But, as the laps continued to click off, Johnson began to fall into the clutches of Busch, and not just one of them.  The younger brother, Kyle, was on a tear as well in his No. 18 M&M’s Pretzels Toyota.  On lap 130, both Busch brothers passed Johnson, but it was Kyle officially getting the lead.

Kyle would lead as green-flag stops approached, yielding to his older brother on lap 148 for service.  Kurt would follow to pit road one lap later, handing the lead to Jamie McMurray. By the time the pit cycle ended on lap 150, Kyle Busch once again found himself out front and looked to try and sweep the weekend’s races.

The third caution came out on lap 167 when both Hamlin and Johnson had issues racing down the front stretch.  Johnson cut a tire down and hit the outside wall in turn 2, while Hamlin caught a bit of the frontstretch grass causing damage to his splitter.

At this point, the race would take a dramatic twist as during the round of pit stops, Kyle Busch would come in as the leader, but came out at a bad end of an incident.  He collided with Brad Keselowski, knocking the toe out of the car, and forcing him to make extra stops to repair the damage.  Essentially, the leader was taken out and the race was wide open again.

Also, by this time the track was in it’s second transition as it was now twilight at the speedway, and the sun was nearly set.  The speeds began to pick up and the handling became more important to many drivers that were near the front.

The field went back to green at lap 172 with Kurt Busch back out front, and it appeared as though his car did not change much as the sun set.  Busch got the lead on the round of pit stops and looked as though he was once again going to be the car to beat.

A caution for debris on lap 213 didn’t even slow him down as he gave up the lead for a few laps to Clint Bowyer, but he once again went back to the front.  Soon, the field would cycle through another round of green-flag stops, but unfortunately Kurt did not make it out in the lead.  Matt Kenseth had a quicker stop and less total time on pit road, which would give him the lead as the cycle was completed.

But, immediately upon completion, the caution flag came back out.  This time, Johnson, who was battling a loose car from earlier in the evening, spun coming out of the second turn and slammed head long into the inside wall on the back straightaway.  Johnson was alright, but the car needed extensive repairs, and eventually would be able to get back on track.  Johnson would be credited with a 37th-place finish by night’s end.

Kenseth would bring the field back to green, but Kurt was not going to be denied as he would once again grab the lead one lap later.  Kenseth would try to get by, but failed to do so.  However, one other driver was set to make a charge to the front.  McMurray would get his second lead of the night on lap 299 just as the field went under caution when Robby Gordon struck the outside wall.

Kurt would win the race off pit road, but would be second in line behind teammate Keselowski on the ensuing restart.  But, it was not long before the No. 2 was back to the lead, however this time it was becoming clear that the two top drivers were Kurt and McMurray.

As the race got below 100 laps remaining, the final track transition was complete as it was now completely dark, the lights were shining brightly and the temperatures were at their coolest.  Teams were running their fastest laps and it was going to be clear who had made the right adjustments.

Following the sixth caution on lap 308, Kurt still held the lead but McMurray was coming.  His owner, Chip Ganassi, had already won the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day and was looking to make a sweep for his organization.

McMurray grabbed the lead on lap 339 and would lead the field into the final round of green-flag stops began with less than 50 laps remaining.  The field would cycle through on lap 366 as some teams were on different pit strategies.  But, it was McMurray back out front and it looked as though he was going to be the one taking victory.

However, the race’s final caution on lap 376 changed everything.  When Ambrose spin for the second time, collecting the inside wall on the back straightaway, the leaders came in for minor changes as it would be a short run to the finish.  Some drivers decided to stay on track and gamble to hold onto a good finish.

As the field was set to go back to green, the top four drivers stayed on track, led by Jeff Gordon.  Kurt and McMurray each took two tires, but the No. 2 came out ahead and restarted a few positions behind the leader.

It did not take long for that car to get to the front as one lap after the restart, Kurt got the top spot.  Meanwhile, McMurray would soon follow and get into second, but knew time was running out to catch the Miller Lite Dodge.  He shrunk the lead to less than a second, but that would be as close as it would get.

After winning $1 million in last week’s All-Star Race, the No. 2 team brought a new car to the track with a similar setup looking for a sweep.  He dominated all three transitions and was the top car all night long.  For the first time in a points-paying race, Kurt Busch would come around the final turn, capturing the checkered flag and winning the Coca-Cola 600.

It would be the second time in three years that the winner of the All-Star Race would follow up with a win in the 600-mile event at Charlotte.  The win pushed Kurt to sixth in the points, up three positions since the last points race at Dover.  This team has momentum, and it could continue as the weeks progress.

Next Sunday, NASCAR comes to our state.  It’s a track that is fast, tight, and extremely unique.  With speeds reaching 200 mph at some sections of the track, everyone will be on alert.  It’s the Pocono Raceway, located in the gorgeous Pocono Mountains.

The Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 is set to go green at 1 p.m ET.  Television coverage also changes next week as the Coca-Cola 600 was the last race for FOX this season.  Coverage now switches to TNT as Adam Alexander, Wally Dallenbach and Kyle Petty provide the play-by-play from the booth.

Coverage will begin with “Countdown to Green” at Noon ET.

RESULTS: 1-Kurt Busch  2-McMurray  3-Kyle Busch  4-Martin  5-Reutimann  6-Gordon  7-Bowyer  8-Menard  9-Newman  10-Kenseth

NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Harvick  12-Kahne  15-Stewart  16-Edwards  18-Hamlin  22-Earnhardt Jr.  25-Burton  32-Biffle  37-Johnson

CAUTIONS: 8 for 34 laps.  Lap 62-67 (No. 42 spin-BS), 91-95 (No. 47 spin-T4), 167-172 (No. 11, 48 accident-FS), 213-217 (debris), 273-277 (No. 48 accident-BS), 300-306 (No. 7 accident-T4), 308-313 (No. 16 accident-T1), 376-381 (No. 47 accident-BS).

LEAD CHANGES: 34 among 17 drivers.  Newman 1-11, Kurt Busch 12-51, Logano 52-53, Kurt Busch 54-63, Hamlin 64-66, Kurt Busch 67-92, Gilliland 93, Johnson 94-95, Kurt Busch 96, Johnson 97-129, Kyle Busch 130-147, Kurt Busch 148, McMurray 149, Kyle Busch 150-168, Kurt Busch 169-214, Bowyer 215-217, Kurt Busch 218-266, Reutimann 267-268, Kenseth 269-277, Kurt Busch 278-298, McMurray 299-301, Keselowski 302-303, Kurt Busch 304-338, McMurray 339-351, Reutimann 352, Stewart 353, Ragan 354, Earnhardt Jr. 355-365, McMurray 366-377, Gordon 378-381, Kurt Busch 382-400.

TIME OF RACE: 4 Hrs.  10 Mins.  13 Secs.


MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.738 Seconds

POINT STANDINGS: 1-Harvick, 1898 points  2-Kyle Busch, -29  3-Kenseth, -117  4-Gordon, -138  5-Hamlin, -166  6-Kurt Busch, -172  7-Johnson, -204  8-Burton, -241  9-Biffle, -250  10-Martin, -261  11-Edwards, -296  12-Newman, -351

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