Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Coca Cola 600

This is the longest race of the year, in terms of miles run. Lowes Motor Speedway is a fast 1.5 mile track in the middle of Nascar's traditional racing country. Virtually all the teams are based within 30 minutes or so from the track, so old home week for Nascar finishes up with a fantastic spectacle the promises exiting racing, very tired and hot drivers, and probably some engine failures as well. Tires promise to be an unknown as well, from what we saw in last week's All Star race.

Jimmie Johnson has been a dominant driver at this track in the last few years, and the Fords of Jack Roush have always run well here. This year, we will see just how well the Toyotas will run in a virtual marathon for racing engines. Last week, the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing did not fair too well, but supposedly that was a new, untried engine package, that apparently needs some more work before it's ready to race.

Speaking of Toyota, my hat is off to Mark Cronquist, the head engine guy for JGR. Mark seems to have pulled off quite a feat this year, because the Toyota engines appear to have quite a few more horsepower than do the other manufacturer's engines. No one is publicly crying foul here, at least among the teams, so I assume everything is on the up and up.

I imagine the first part of the race will probably be the Kyle Busch show again, since he will once again be starting on the pole. As he did last week, I expect to see Kyle out in front by several seconds before many laps have gone into the record book. I also expect to see America's favorite driver to hate overdrive his car early in the race, since Kyle's plan always seems to be to drive every lap like it were the white flag lap. If JGR and Toyota can put a car under him that will last for 600 miles, it will truly be a feat of engineering that has never been seen before in racing. It will also be an extraordinarily boring race. TV ratings will drop, fans will begin to leave the event before halfway, and if Kyle were to get the checkered flag, he will probably do it before a few thousand people, instead of 170,000.

I doubt that this is going to happen though. Kyle's talents also seem to include tearing up good equipment, and making mistakes. Kyle's biggest fan, Darrell Waltrip had a great deal of talent for that very same thing early in his career as well, and it wasn't until he had been driving for Junior Johnson for a while that he got to the point that he could win without hitting everything but the pace car. With that consistency also came a lowering of the internal thermostat, in other words thinking instead of opening his mouth, and driving smart instead of trying to lead every lap of every race. Most young drivers start out thinking they are the greatest driver in the history of the sport, but most of them get over it by the time they've been in the series a couple of years. With some others, it takes a bit longer, I suppose.

I'd like to belatedly give thanks to one of the last of the true gentlemen in Nascar, Dale Jarrett, who drove his final race last week. Dale has always showed a tremendous amount of class, and is someone who should be looked up to by all young drivers in the sport. Dale Jarrett will be truly missed on the race track, and I'm looking forward to listening to him in the booth when ESPN takes over the final portion of the season. Dale's class and graciousness will be missed.

This weekend marks another milestone in Nascar, and the end of another era. Humpy Wheeler, long time promoter and track president at Lowes Motor Speedway is retiring, and apparently he doesn't have much say in the matter. Humpy has done so much for so many drivers over the years. Humpy was the guy that convinced Rod Osterlund to take a chance on a brash young driver named Dale Earnhardt, and we all know how that turned out. Humpy has helped many drivers get in the show over the years, and he will be greatly missed.

Lowes Motor Speedway is a very special place to watch a race. I've been to several races there, and the excitement when the green flag drops is contagious. If the sound of 43 screaming racing engines doesn't get your blood pumping, nothing will. For a driver to win a race here in front of the home town crowd is a jewel in their crown. There are a lot of tracks at which drivers especially want to win, and to win at Charlotte is special.

Sunday looks to be warm and sunny, with the high nearly 80 degrees. Temperatures should cool somewhat after sunset, but it's still going to be very hot in the race cars. This will be a test of not only the cars and the engines, but of the drivers themselves. The drivers will need to be in peak physical condition, and they will need to keep themselves hydrated throughout the afternoon and evening. Something as seemingly trivial as a hose slipping off the helmet leading to the cool box could make things really unbearable for a driver. Feet will be blistered without the proper protection, and then of course there will be the dreaded Turn 2 itself, which has proven to be a very difficult corner for the drivers to negotiate.

The Coca Cola 600. There's not another race quite like it, and it will be a true test of man, machine, and race strategy. Let the games begin, and may the best man win!

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