By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
While some races may seem like a quick knockout, Sunday’s daylight to dusk to darkness marathon is more of a 10-round slugfest, with the driver’s toughness and endurance being put to the test over the duration of the 400-lap event.
What began as the World 600 back in 1960 and was then truly a race of attrition where only the strongest survived has transformed over the years. However, one thing remains, to win this race, you must be able to outlast your competitors and place yourself in the right place to make the move to the front of the field when it counts.
While drivers have become more athletic and equipment has gotten better over the years, the chances of equipment failure are not nearly as high as they were when this race began, but even with all of the advances, 600 miles is still a long way and four plus hours behind the wheel can take its toll on even the best of the best.
“I can’t say it’s gotten any easier through my career here,” said four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Jimmie Johnson. “We might finish a little quicker some years due to speed, but g-forces are higher, so I just think it all kind of levels out. I’m thinking back to the days when they didn’t have power steering, that might have been a little bit different (laughs). It is a very long and difficult race that I spend a lot of time physically preparing for making sure that I’m right. I treat it a lot like a triathlon with electrolytes and carbs and just the strategy in how to stay fueled and alert through the course of the race. It’s definitely a big day in the office.”
In addition to the physical toll the race can take on the drivers, the cars still take a beating throughout the event as well, with teams having to take extra precautions to make sure their equipment will last all the way to the checkered flag.
“From 2001, and that’s really how I can relate to it, there was that pace yourself, try to keep yourself on the lead lap, take care of your car, we’re gonna back the engine off 25 horsepower so that we can make sure that everything makes it to the end of the race. We’re gonna put extra cooling on the car. None of that happens now,” said Kevin Harvick.
“You’ll have less laps on the engine. You’ll have things that they change from an axle standpoint or a seal standpoint that may be different from a 400 or 500-mile race just as a precaution, so it’s physically demanding, it’s still hard on the cars, but there’s a much more precise calculation of parts and pieces and how far they’ll go and the things that they’ll do in the engines and things like that.”
Harvick added that the old adage of saving your equipment so it would make it the full distance has gone by the wayside as drivers and teams are pushing it to the limit from the drop of the green flag throughout the event.
“It’s 400 laps as fast as the car will go. If you don’t do it that way, you’re gonna wind up a lap down, you’re gonna make a mistake throughout the day that you’re gonna need a cushion to not wind up a lap down because it’s just such a long race. You’re gonna have something that you have to battle through at some particular point, whether it’s a decision of using a set of tires or missing pit road or having a bad pit stop – whatever the scenario is – if you aren’t going hard every lap or you have something in your mindset that you’re not gonna go hard every lap, somebody is gonna lap you and you won’t win this race.”
Matt Kenseth, who returns to Charlotte in his new role with Roush-Fenway Racing seemed to agree with Harvick and eluded to the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“So many things have changed,” said Kenseth. “It’s been a lot of years and there have been so many changes since then, mainly with the cars, but some of the biggest ones are probably not as adjustable as they once were and the track goes through a fairly big change, but there is no more pacing yourself or choosing a certain gear because you want your engine to live.
“All of that stuff is kind of in the past, so it’s different and everybody just runs as hard as they can every lap for five hours to try to get the best finish you can because you just can’t afford to give up spots, you can’t afford to pace yourself and let somebody in front of you because you might not ever get back around them.”