Endurance racing in Sprint Cup? Coca-Cola 600 bears resemblance

Updated: May 23, 2008, 2:25 PM ET

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

Casey Mears won the Coke 600 in 2007, but they don't call Lowe's "Jimmie's House" for nothing.

Start Your Engines

Some 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 Man

Kasey 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 johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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Standings

You Gotta See This

Slippery Slope

Newman

Ryan Newman: Darlington should have been in his wheelhouse: He had a history of top-5 finishes, he got some bonus time at the Lady in Black earlier at a tire test and he had a little momentum going with two top-10s in the past two races.

Oops. Instead the rear end broke on the Penske Dodge, sending Newman into the wall and to the garage for lengthy repairs. He returned to the race but finished 73 laps down in 37th place, losing two spots in the standings and falling out of the crucial top 12. With feast-or-famine weeks like these (prior to the aforementioned top-10s, he was fourth at Texas and dead last at Phoenix), he could be on his way to a summer on the Chase bubble.

Going The Wrong Way

Sadler

Elliott Sadler: Two bad weeks -- perhaps only one being his fault -- but two bad weeks nonetheless for the No. 19 Dodge. He took full blame for an early Darlington crash that left him in 42nd place and dropped him three spots in the standings to 28th ("I just made a huge mistake," he said, while apologizing to Tony Stewart).

At the Sprint Showdown he was done long before having a chance to earn a spot in the feature next to fan-voted Gillett Evernham teammate Kahne -- he was out on Lap 2 after a run-in with A.J. Allmendinger. "There's a reason why he gets taken out of that race car it seems like every other week," Sadler said.

That comment, by the way, is points-race-quality trash talk on a non-points weekend.

Showing Some Love For …

Reutimann

David Reutimann: Maybe you haven't noticed him much lately, but that's kind of the point. A year ago, Michael Waltrip Racing took up permanent residence outside the top-35 in owner points, scrambling furiously at every qualifying session to get its Toyotas to the weekend. Not so this year, and the native of Zephyrhills, Fla., deserves a lot of the credit for it.

Reutimann started the season in the No. 00, qualifying for the first five races and finishing well enough to be able to hand the car over to Michael McDowell safely inside the top 35, giving the rookie pressure-free qualifying days. Reutimann then went over to the retired Dale Jarrett's No. 44, which was barely inside the top 35 after five races, and has since given it some breathing room. His last four finishes have been between 19th and 22nd -- not the stuff of legend, but more than enough to keep the focus on racing instead of qualifying.