AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Start Your EnginesSome races on the Sprint Cup schedule could be shorter (Pocono, June 8). And while there are a few that have perhaps 100 miles too many (Pocono, Aug. 10), that's not the case at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Sunday, the day before Memorial Day. If the series had four majors like golf or tennis, the Coca-Cola 600 would be one of them. Not so much because the 1.5-mile oval in Concord, N.C., is an iconic track like Indianapolis (home to the racing's other Memorial Day weekend tradition), but because an extra 100 miles makes all the difference. The 600 is a true grind, yet no one complains. "I've always been a fan of longer races and the Coca-Cola 600 is the longest of our season," said Petty Enterprises' Bobby Labonte, who won it in 1995 while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. "The extra mileage gives your crew chief more time to dial in the car. It gives the drivers time to figure out their car and communicate that over the radio. It's a long race, but it's a lot of fun." The 400 laps start in daylight but end at night, creating challenges for crew chiefs. A great car early can turn sour under the lights or vice versa, though ideally it's a smooth transition as the race wears on. "Early in the 600 you're running in conditions you're not going to finish the race in, obviously. You start at what's typically a real hot part of the day and the track is slippery without a whole lot of grip. You're basically just trying to stay on the lead lap, and with each pit stop, you're adjusting your car to keep up with the changing track conditions," said Tony Stewart, eighth in points for JGR. "You're making sure you keep some adjustability built into your setup, so that when the sun goes down and the track really starts changing, you're able to adjust your car accordingly." Drivers got a trial run for the 600 last weekend in the All-Star events, discovering that long runs on tires were possible with no ill effects. But there's still plenty to learn with the new cars, which have never seen a test like this. "I can guarantee you that this time around with these new cars, there'll be many more ill-handling cars out there during the final 100 miles than there are cars handling well," said Penske Racing's Kurt Busch, who has had his share of the former in a 22nd-place points season so far. "It's been a big challenge already to race these things for 500 miles. Now go and throw in those extra 100 miles that we'll be running on Sunday and it'll be a grind like we've never experienced." Strange things can happen over such a grind, never more so than last year when previously winless Casey Mears of Hendrick Motorsports took the checkers, followed by J.J. Yeley, Kyle Petty, Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers -- in perhaps the most peculiar top-5 in Cup history. Another motley crew could be left standing Sunday night. Those extra 100 miles can do funny things.
Rocket ManKasey Kahne: For the Gillett Evernham No. 9 Dodge, taking a fan-vote spot in the All-Star race and turning it into a victory was just as good as a points race win. Kahne has only one top-10 in the past six races after finishing in the top 10 in four of five to start the season, so maybe the All-Star showing is a return to form. "Saturday showed us that Gillett Evernham has the ability to compete for the win every week, and that's very important," Kahne said. Look at Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning the preseason Budweiser Shootout in his first foray in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88. That clearly got him started on the right foot, and he's been very good since, albeit winless. If Kahne makes the Chase -- he's tied with Penske's Ryan Newman for 13th, two points behind cutoff driver David Ragan -- remember last weekend. John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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