NASCAR at Charlotte 2014: Winners and Losers from Coca-Cola 600
Six hundred miles in central North Carolina was painted red, white and blue in honor of Memorial Day. Forty-three drivers honored the country's military, past and present. Big winner.
Charlotte Motor Speedway was a chameleonic backdrop during the Coca-Cola 600. It started in the sun with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. The sun went down and cooled the track, cranking up the aggression.
Jeff Gordon, the current Sprint Cup points leader, nearly missed his first start in decades with back problems. He manned up and got his butt in the No. 24 car and had a car strong enough to win. Kurt Busch spent his early afternoon racing in the Indy 500, and Jimmie Johnson looked to win his seventh career race at Charlotte.
The early part of the race belonged to Johnson and Kevin Harvick, two drivers who love Charlotte as much as Bank of America. In the final stages, Johnson swiped the lead from Matt Kenseth and parked in Victory Lane for the first time in 2014.
Of course Johnson's a big winner, but he has company. Carry on to see the winners and losers from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Winner: Bold Moves with Under 10 Laps Left
Matt Kenseth was moving well. He had what appeared to be a cushy lead with just 10 laps to go. But pole winner Jimmie Johnson kept clipping off fast laps. He approached Kenseth's bumper, nearly tapped it and slung through on the inside to open up.
There was no catching JJ.
It was Johnson's seventh win at Charlotte Motor Speedway—the most ever—but only his first win of 2014. He led 164 laps on the night, which meant he simply had the best car for 600 miles.
The desperation in the final 10 laps was palpable. Both Johnson and Kenseth—the two winningest drivers from a year ago—were winless in 2014. They needed the win, and it was the No. 48 car that was truly unbeatable.
Loser: Engine Cylinders
Danica Patrick was riding high after the best finish of her young career in NASCAR, seventh place at Kansas in her 57th career start.
The way the Coca-Cola 600 started for Patrick, it appeared the confidence from Kansas bled into Charlotte. She started fourth and then moved up to second but soon found herself falling back with every straightaway. Reports from during the race cited that her engine had lost a cylinder. As a result, the GoDaddy Chevrolet had no power.
She was even involved in the fifth caution when Marcos Ambrose's Twisted Tea car spun out of control. Then she was the source of the seventh caution on Lap 286 when her engine blew. She joined teammate Kurt Busch, who also lost his engine.
It wasn't Patrick's—or Stewart-Haas'—finest 600 miles.
Winner: Cessna Citation X
It didn't matter where Kurt Busch finished in the Coca-Cola 600; it didn't matter that he blew an engine 300 miles into the race. He had spent the early part of his day racing 500 miles in Indiana, in a familiar race called the Indy 500. After finishing sixth in that race, Busch hopped in a helicopter that took him to an airport. Waiting for him there was a Cessna Citation X to fly him to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Nine hundred and six miles in one day? That's no joke.
Busch was a DNF in Charlotte, but he proved his capacity to compete at the highest level in different—though semi-related—disciplines. He hasn't been too sharp this season, ranking just 28th heading into Charlotte.
Going forward, Busch will have to throttle up to keep pace with his teammates, namely Kevin Harvick. But, as Busch told the Fox broadcast after he climbed out of his car, "I can't let what happened here dampen the mood on what happened in Indianapolis."
Loser: Bad Vibrations
Clint Bowyer was rolling through the first half of the Coca-Cola 600. Then he started feeling vibrations in his car and pitted. No big deal.
The pit crew changed out the two left tires and he sped off. The commentators on Fox thought it was a mistake not to change out all four tires. They were correct.
On the next lap, he pitted again, this time to change out the right tires. It was a move—or slip-up—that cost him dearly. Bowyer was in the top five at one point but only managed to finish 17th.
Winner: Jeff Gordon's Back
For a time, it looked as though Jeff Gordon wasn't going to start in the Coca-Cola 600. He withdrew after 11 laps of practice Saturday, enough to threaten his 737-race start streak. Before the race, the driver told FoxSports.com, (h/t NASCAR):
I'm certainly feeling better than I was yesterday. The doctors have done everything they possibly could to get me prepared. I feel like we're going to be OK, but you just never know until you get in the car and get in those loads. It was tough to get out (of the car) for practice. I can't imagine what it would be like for the race. I don't plan on doing that.
Whatever it was the doctors did, it worked for Gordon, who finished seventh and kept his lock on the lead in the Sprint Cup standings.
At age 42 and only 12 races into the season, his streak could be in jeopardy as the grind of all those laps beings to erode his aging body. If the back spasms are isolated, then good for him and his team. These things have a way of nagging at an athlete, though, and it will be a story worth following for the rest of the season.
Loser: Harvick's Troubles Late
Kevin Harvick had a strong Budweiser car in Charlotte, and he came screaming up the track late in the race. After the last restart with 20 laps to go, he charged from 10th to fifth in a blink.
There was no catching Johnson, but Harvick did manage to get up to second.
It's hard to lump the driver in as a "loser" given that he finished second to the pole-sitter. He does have two wins to his credit this year. Harvick expected more, though, and his fans will point to sloppiness on pit road.
At one point, Harvick told his team over the radio that he had a loose wheel and expressed to the media after the race his disappointment in his team's pit road performance.
It's frustrating for him, his team and his fans. It seems like an easy fix, and if the No. 4 team can address it, Harvick will be a threat in every race he starts.
Winner: Charlotte Motor Speedway
Adding a wrinkle to an already long race is the fact that the Coca-Cola 600 starts in the sun and ends under the moon. Light is not the only thing that changes.
The track conditions are chameleonic throughout the 600 miles. The race is all about weathering the daylight and then turning it loose when it gets dark...like Batman.
Larry McReynolds of FoxSports.com writes:
This Sunday we will start the race in broad daylight. We then will have the transition from afternoon to dusk. Then we will transition from dusk to nighttime racing, and the checkered flag won't wave until sometime around 11 p.m.
So knowing that, you have to have a lot of adjustability in your race car. Keeping up with the racetrack Sunday is what you'll probably have to work on the most. They will have two practice sessions on Saturday which is great, but they won't be in any way, shape or form the conditions the drivers will be facing for the majority of the race on Sunday.
That made for exciting racing to see how the crew chiefs and pit crews would react during 600 miles of racing across different conditions.
Loser: Stewart-Haas Racing
Sure, Kevin Harvick finished second for Stewart-Haas Racing, but is that enough to carry the heavy disappointment levied by Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick?
Stewart finished a middling 13th and never really threatened at all. Busch, racing's multitasker, blew an engine. Not to be outdone, Patrick lost an engine just a few laps after that.
Patrick finished a solid seventh at Kansas, and Busch finished sixth in the Indy 500. Harvick has won two races this year, and Stewart is Stewart. The pieces are there, but Charlotte was not the greatest showcase for SHR.