By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
The greatest day in auto racing is upon us once more with three premier events (F1 at Monaco, the Indianapolis 500, and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte) all taking place throughout the day on Sunday. With the 57th running of the Coca-Cola 600 set for Sunday afternoon into the night, we’ll take a step back to one of the most memorable races at Charlotte in recent memory, the 2005 Coca-Cola 600 and the amazing finish between Jimmie Johnson and Bobby Labonte.
Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon led the field to green, with Newman getting the jump early, only to have Gordon take over on lap 10. Rookie Kyle Busch, who had won the Truck Series and Busch Series support races in the days leading up to the Coca-Cola 600, took control of the lead from his sixth place starting spot on lap 17 and would be the dominant player in the first 107 laps of the race, leading 55 of those laps.
On lap 102, the first major wreck of the night broke out on the backstretch involving Jimmy Spencer, Scott Riggs, Mike Skinner, Robby Gordon, and Michael Waltrip. Though it was the fourth caution of the evening, it was a precursor for the wild night that was ahead. Bobby Labonte, who started the race in 34th, was able to get the free pass under that caution to move back on the lead lap, an event that would have a big impact later in the race.
The phrase “cautions breed cautions” exists for a reason and the track’s transition from daylight to dusk into the evening was littered with yellow flags, with 10 cautions flying between lap 115 and lap 240, most of which were for single car incidents or debris, with the exception of a three car pileup involving Martin Truex, Jr., Sterling Marlin, and Casey Mears on lap 217. With the race just past halfway, the caution total already stood at 14, and things were just beginning to heat up.
Dale Earnhardt, Inc. teammates, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Michael Waltrip, were the next to have issues on the track at lap 247. As the two followed each other through the double dogleg of Charlotte’s frontstretch, Earnhardt made contact with the rear of Waltrip’s car, sending him spinning into the outside wall and collecting Matt Kenseth in the process. Remember Bobby Labonte, who got the free pass earlier in the race? Well, he made it through the carnage of the lap 247 caution unscathed as he was on his way toward the front of the field.
Things calmed down a bit over the next 100 laps or so, as there were five additional cautions, but for single car incidents or debris. Through the carnage that had taken place thus far in the race, Ryan Newman was able to keep his No. 12 car near the front of the field, leading another 34 laps, but a new contender had emerged in Brian Vickers, piloting the No. 25 car for Hendrick Motorsports. Through lap 372, Vickers was out front for 98 of those laps.
Vickers ceded the lead under green flag pit stops just past lap 351, with Joe Nemechek coming out as the race leader heading into the race’s home stretch. Nemechek put his No. 01 car into the lead for 26 laps between lap 365 and lap 390, but a pivotal event on lap 380 would shift the tide of the race once more.
On lap 380, Vickers, who had shown promise in the race lead earlier, was trying to battle back through the field and made contact with Bill Elliott’s No. 91 car heading into Turn 1, spinning him in front of the field and collecting Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, and Mark Martin.
With 10 laps to go, Nemechek, who was leading comfortably over Bobby Labonte, Jimmie Johnson, and Ryan Newman, suffered a cut tire, sending his car into the outside wall, and ending his chances at the win. The race lead went to Labonte as the red flag was displayed to clean up Nemechek’s accident, which was the 22nd of the day and still stands as the NASCAR record for the most cautions in one race.
Labonte brought the field back to green ahead of Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman with five laps to go and it was anyone’s race at that point. Labonte got clear of Edwards in short order for firm control of the lead, but Johnson, who had won at Charlotte in three of the last four trips, was coming like a freight train behind him.
Johnson caught up to Labonte’s rear bumper with two and a half laps left, but Labonte was able to hold him off as the finish drew nearer.
Heading through Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap, Johnson used the same move that Edwards had used against him earlier in the year at Atlanta, and moved to the outside of Labonte to use the momentum down the frontstretch and to the finish line. Johnson executed the move perfectly and was able to beat Labonte back to the finish by .027 seconds.
“I lost one earlier this year to Carl Edwards that way and I knew if I could get to Bobby’s quarter and get his spotter to say ‘outside’, I would have the momentum back to the start/finish line. I got a little impatient when we took the white; I made a pretty bonsai pass underneath him in (Turns) 1 and 2 and I lost a bunch of momentum and got sideways and I thought I lost it. But I went into Turn 3 a little mad and determined and made it stick around the outside and beat him back to the start/finish line. This is a very, very special win,” said Johnson.
Photo By Streeter Lecka/Getty Images