Commentary

Coke 600 is a marathon, not a sprint

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:40 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- The All-Star Race drama between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch caused quite a stir this past weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, particularly between the drivers involved.

In case you have a very short memory, Busch said Hamlin should have pulled over and let him pass when he had a run at the start of the final 10-lap segment. Hamlin basically said Busch was full of himself, crowding him more in his Friday afternoon interview session than he ever has on the track.

Kyle Busch
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesKyle Busch was back to his cheerful self Thursday, five days after his highly publicized run-in with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.

There were a lot of other insults in between that make you wonder whether this spat truly is over.

But don't expect the same sort of drama in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600. It's a different animal, two races within one with the change between night and day. It's as much about preserving machine as it is about who has the fastest car.

You're much more likely to see a driver check out and leave the field behind than see two cars battling for position at the end. You definitely shouldn't see teammates running each other into the wall -- unless maybe it's on a green-white-checkered finish for the victory.

"It's always a different race in the All-Star Race," Hamlin said. "It doesn't matter if it's the Shootout at the beginning of the year or the All-Star Race or the Showdown beforehand. It's everyone for themselves.

"If that same situation happens at halfway of Sunday's race, for sure I see [Busch] coming, I'm moving over and letting him go because I've got 300 more miles to make it up."

There's a different protocol in points races, particularly in the longest race of the year. You don't want to do something that is going to cost you in the standings, something that could kill your shot for the 10-race Chase at the end of the season.

"In the All-Star Race, you race a certain way there because of what it is," four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. "I wouldn't anticipate those guys letting it carry over or letting a situation like that build in a points race.

"I could be wrong, but just everybody drives so different in the All-Star Race, and that's why you saw the aggressive moves."

That doesn't mean the 600 won't have its own drama. Your car can be junk for 300 miles, but with the temperature change and the right setup adjustment, you can be running for the win at the end.

Fuel mileage, two tires versus four and even rain also are factors. Who will ever forget David Reutimann a year ago standing beside his car in the rain for more than an hour waiting to be declared the winner?

That only two of Richard Petty's 200 career wins came in the 600 tells you how tough it can be.

"There's just so many things that you go through in a 600-mile race," Kevin Harvick said. "The track is very temperature-sensitive, so your car has to be very adjustable and do things that you normally wouldn't do in a weekend, adjustmentwise, for pit stops, and just trying to anticipate when the track is going to take those swings."

No team was better at that from 2003 to 2005 than Johnson's, winning three straight 600s and five of six races overall at CMS. The 48 crew followed that with a second in 2006.

Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon also is one to watch. He, too, has won the 600 three times.

"I love this race," Gordon said "I think it is too long, but I just love the racetrack. I like how things change a lot during the race."

Jimmie Johnson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson won five of six races at Charlotte Motor Speedway between 2003 and 2005.

It's like a chess match, with crew chiefs and drivers hoping to make the right move at the right time that will checkmate the competition. It doesn't always work that way. Sometimes adjustments work the other way and a car that was dominant early isn't a factor at the end.

"The biggest part is that if you're going to be fast at night, you won't be the fastest in the day," said Kasey Kahne, who won this race in '06 and '08. "Usually we start off too loose in the day and you bide your time. Six hundred miles is such a long time that you can make little adjustments throughout.

"You try to stay calm and make your moves later in the race. I have been lapped early here and come back to run well at night. You just have to be patient and work hard."

That doesn't mean you always race hard, particularly when a teammate is involved. But chances are there will be teammates involved at the end, whether it's Gordon and Johnson or Hamlin and Busch.

The four have won eight of the 12 races thus far and make up four of the top five drivers in laps led. Hamlin and Busch have won five of the past seven, and both qualified for Sunday's race in the top nine, so you really expect them to be up front at the end of this marathon.

"He's gonna try everything he can to beat us, and we're gonna try everything we can to beat him," Hamlin said of Busch. " Right now, I feel like we have the two best teams and cars, and the way we're running right now, as far as championship caliber is concerned.

"We don't need to let anything derail; we just need to move on from that."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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