Memorial Day weekend in the motorsports world means one thing, racing’s greatest day beginning with F1 at Monaco, the Indianapolis 500, and ending with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”, we’ll take a step back a decade to look at a win by a member of a family known more for their open wheel exploits than those in stock cars. Of course, we’re talking about Casey Mears’ upset win in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600.
Mears had come close to a win in 2005 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale, but had to settle for a fifth place finish in that race. Beginning in 2007, Mears moved over to the No. 25 car at Hendrick Motorsports and things began looking up for him.
Heading into the Coca-Cola 600, Mears sat 35th in points and needed a good day to gain some ground in the points standings to stay in the top 35 in points to be able to have a guaranteed spot in the field and a good day is what he got.
Through the first 150 miles of the annual daylight to dark 600 mile marathon, it looked as if Kurt Busch, who was driving in his first season for Team Penske, was the early car to beat, leading 102 of the first 112 laps, but as the Coca-Cola 600 proves, those who are good at the beginning of the race aren’t necessarily the best as the race nears completion.
The next two challengers to take their turn at the front of the field for more than one lap were the No. 83 of Brian Vickers, driving for the upstart Red Bull Racing team with Toyota in their first year in NASCAR, and Jimmie Johnson. Vickers led a total of 76 laps, but after Johnson took over the lead on lap 224, Vickers would fade back into the top 10 and wouldn’t see the lead for the remainder of the race.
Johnson continued to lead, only being heavily challenged by Matt Kenseth through the 300 lap mark.
Tony Stewart was the next to assert himself into the lead, but as the laps ticked down, fuel mileage began to come into play, with many of the teams a few laps short of being able to make it to lap 400 to make the full distance of the race.
Beginning with about 10 laps to go, the leaders began hitting pit road for a splash of gas with Johnson being the first to hit pit road with nine laps to go. Stewart was the next to make his pit stop with seven laps to go, handing the lead over to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The lead was short lived for Earnhardt as he headed to pit road the next lap. With Earnhardt on pit road, the lead then cycled to Denny Hamlin, who led for a lap and then made his pit stop with five laps to go.
Once Hamlin made his pit stop, the lead was then handed over to Mears, who had been biding his time in the top ten throughout the race, and on the call from crew chief Darian Grubb, was able to squeeze every ounce of fuel he could out of the last tank of fuel. After taking the lead, Mears was able to practically coast home as he had a substantial lead over the second and third place cars of JJ Yeley and Kyle Petty.
To show how close Mears and his team were to not making it on fuel, Mears radioed to the team on the backstretch during his cool down lap letting them know that he was out of fuel. After the race, the team also discovered that there was a chunk missing out of one of his tires and the tire was on the edge of letting go. For Mears at Charlotte in 2007, everything fell into place, from the fuel strategy to the luck with the tire, to allow the young driver to score his first Cup Series win.
“I can’t believe we’re in victory lane right now. The team did an awesome job, I have to thank Darian (Grubb, crew chief), he made an excellent call and told me to conserve fuel and that was our game plan. We were a third or fourth place car at best and that was the only way to win it. I just want to thank everyone, National Guard, Hendrick Motorsports, GMAC, all of these guys that did an excellent job all day. I can’t believe we’re sitting here right now. I’m so happy,” Mears said in victory lane after the race.
Not to be overshadowed by Mears’ win, the second place finish by Yeley was his best Cup Series finish and the third place finish by Petty was his best finish since winning at Dover in June 1995.