NASCAR at Charlotte 2016: Winners and Losers from the Coca-Cola 600
If you can’t win the greatest race (Daytona 500), and you can’t win the championship (at Homestead), you want to win the longest race. That's the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
And the way Martin Truex Jr.’s season had gone to date, he’d take a win in a spirited bout of Mario Kart. That was until his unilaterally dominant performance in Sunday’s 600.
“You have got to drive the car into Victory Circle and he has been on his game tonight,” Darrell Waltrip said during the Fox broadcast.
Truex led an unthinkable 392 of 400 laps after enduring some of the worst racing luck a driver can incur through 13 races.
This win was the monkey he needed to eschew, and maybe now he asserts himself as a serious title contender as the season crests into its second half.
Loser: Kasey Kahne
Kasey Kahne exited the race at Dover and fell two spots in the driver standings to 20th, falling even further down the driver standings.
Things needed to turn around 180 degrees in Charlotte for Kahne.
They did not.
Now, as a three-time winner of the Coke 600, Kahne had to figure he’d be able to get off the bench and into the Chase pic. He hasn’t won since Atlanta in 2014, a sort of do-or-die race.
And so he loosed up the arms and the fingers, flexed that right foot up and down on the throttle only to pit within the first 20 laps of the race.
It happened so early in the race that it was soon forgotten in the laughable way Truex cruised around Charlotte.
The No. 5 car went down three laps, which was a theme given how Truex drove like he was getting chased by incompetent state troopers.
The race gave Kahne a chance to get back into the hunt
Winner: Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to winning at Charlotte. He was right in the thick of this race the entire way. He just needed a machete to hack through the weeds to reach Truex.
If Truex led the most laps, Johnson likely spent just as many in the top three, give or take.
“I kind of felt like [Truex] was playing with us,” Johnson said during the Fox broadcast. “I would flat-foot Turns 1 and 2 and have a nose on him, and he would drive by me in Turn 3.”
That came during one late restart where Johnson earned a gold star for a lap led, then Truex, toying with Johnson as a cat bats at a beleaguered mouse, peeled the 48 right off Johnson’s door.
Amidst the ubiquity of the Joe Gibbs cars winning these races early on, it’s easy to forget the prowess of someone like Johnson on tracks so suited to his style and tech.
In that sense, the No. 48 team must like where it is: dangerously unassuming.
Loser: The Defending Champion
Carl Edwards, the defending winner of this race, had a competitive car that could stay within a few seconds of Truex.
The race, by and large, lacked action through the first 300 laps, and Edwards tracked in third place, a favorable spot with about 100 laps to go.
During a green-flag pit stop, Edwards sped entering pit road. He was penalized a drive-through. All he had to do was not speed again.
He sped again. This time he suffered a stop-and-go penalty. Edwards fell from third to 21st, from the lead lap to a lap down.
And that kissed any chance he had at repeating in the Coke 600.
He finished 18th, a far cry from where he once was.
Winner: The Quiet Run of Brad Keselowski
Truex stole all the camera time during the Coke 600, so it came as a surprise that Brad Keselowski was right there hovering, making moves to finish fifth overall.
He had a good, long-run car, a solid car overshadowed by a perfect one.
Keselowski said during the Fox broadcast:
We fought as hard as we could. We had a decent day, not the win we wanted, but up front for the whole race. We were looking for a break and get those long runs we were talking about. Maybe we could have put something together. It took a really long run, almost till we were out of gas to get rolling.
The top five was Kez’s fourth straight top 10, and he has most certainly asserted himself as the flagship driver of Team Penske through the first half of this season.
Loser: Kyle Busch's Mediocre Day
Kudos to Kyle Busch for hitting the wall and getting the heck out of dodge without releasing the dreaded caution flag in the late stages of the 600.
By this point, Truex was in full control, and the only thing that could stop him from winning was something of a freakish event, like someone at home playing with a NASCAR-themed voodoo doll.
Busch pancaked the fence after cutting a tire, and instead of driving to pit road to fix up his car and finish the race, he made for the garage and phoned it in. Sorry, M&Ms.
Busch was never better than mid-pack; odd given his navigational vigor this season.
He sped off and into the shadows, happy to be done with what must have been a frustrating day that couldn’t have ended soon enough.
Winner: Kevin Harvick, Night Rider
The real complication of the Coke 600 is managing track temps, how the car will handle in the heat of late day and the relative coolness of pre-summer sundown in North Carolina.
“Early on we were really bad. Our [insert title sponsor] Chevy was tight getting into corners,” Kevin Harvick said during the Fox broadcast. “There were a lot of problems that we couldn’t narrow in to fix. [Crew chief] Rodney [Childers] came on the radio and said we made a huge adjustment, and from that point on it was way better.”
They made the right adjustments, and it gave him a fourth-and-long shot at catching Truex.
The runner-up finish was Harvick’s third of the year and his seventh straight top 10 at a 1.5-mile track.
“I thought we were going to drive by [Truex],” Harvick said.
Well, nobody really thought that.
Loser: The All-Star Race Winner
Joey Logano, the winner of the 2016 All-Star Race, stalked Truex through the better part of the first 250 laps of the 600.
Logano still finished eighth, which is like wicked good, but at one point he sat at third. When you see the No. 22 in your rearview it’s going to do weird things to your head, man.
While pitting from third position around Lap 255, his crew hurdled the wall a fraction early. Take a look at how close Logano’s crew was as it jumped over the wall too soon.
That kicked him from third to 21st and a lap down.
A top 10 is certainly admirable, but with hopes so high from the All-Star Race—and still winless in 2016—this was a certain blow to the No. 22 squad.
Winner: The Memorial Day Mugging
We all know it by now: Truex’s season has been filled with the kind of bad luck reserved for the truly damned.
He lost by one-100th of a second in the Daytona 500. He got beat on tire strategy at Texas. An errant lug at Kansas, and then getting stuck behind Johnson at Dover killed chances at wins.
Finally Truex, in what may be the single most dominant Sprint Cup win of all time, led nearly wire-to-wire in the circuit’s longest race and earned that first win of 2016.
“It meant a lot to me,” Truex said during the Fox broadcast. “We won the 600. My guys are something special. This is a big day. Got the troops on the cars. It’s a special weekend. It’s a weekend you dream about.”
He led 392 laps, the most ever, and had what could only be termed as a “perfect” day at the races.
“One time in Charlotte, I saw a car that was absolutely perfect,” analyst Darrell Waltrip said during the Fox broadcast. “You don’t see a perfect car very often. Tonight we saw a perfect car, a perfect driver and a pit crew that was on their game.”
How Truex kept his spirits up through those early snafus is anyone’s guess, but he always knew he would deliver.
“Oh, yeah, I had confidence. In my team, I have a lot of great people behind me. We just keep fighting. We never quit. We keep digging. The pit crew’s come a long way,” Truex said.
The win, in effect, gives Joe Gibbs Racing another car in the Chase, as it has an alliance with Furniture Row Racing.
Though maybe the greatest moment came at the end with a wigless Sherry Pollex, Truex’s cancer-beating girlfriend, saying, “It’s amazing. I keep telling him he had to lose all those races, and that God was building his character so he could win a big one. This is huge for us. We’ve been through so much. This is icing on the cake. This is awesome, so cool.”
Then she gave him one of those hugs you could feel through the television or something.
Anyway, few drivers elicit the kind of universal good will Truex does, and this win was no different.