The Sunday before Memorial Day traditionally features a set of marquee events in the racing world: Formula One races at the famed Monaco Grand Prix, IndyCar hosts its crown jewel in the Indianapolis 500 and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series runs its longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The star-spangled pre-race festivities preceded the start-studded field of 40 drivers, prepared for the de facto endurance race. However, rain affected the race, striking during the second stage and forcing a red flag. Despite a dominating performance by Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon was able to gamble on fuel and win his first career Cup race.
In honor of Memorial Day, the 600 saw the return of the NASCAR Salutes Refreshed by Coca-Cola program; instead of the Monster Energy Cup Series logo, each car’s windshield was adorned with the name of an American military personnel who was killed in action. This has been a staple of the 600’s Memorial Day tradition since 2015, with the Xfinity Series following in the act for Saturday’s Hisense 4K TV 300. For some drivers, the serviceman featured on their windshield is connected with a team member: on Ryan Blaney’s car was Army sergeant Allen Belanger, a friend of Team Penske employee Darin Russell and who was killed in Iraq in 2003; Paul Menard’s car featured the name of third-class petty officer Harold Tussey, who was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and is the great uncle of Richard Childress Racing mechanic Troy Tussey.
Goodyear brought tires with the Goodyear Eagle branding replaced by SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, continuing a trend dating back to 2010. Other features of the festivities included the addition of Honor and Remember flags throughout the garage, while the track’s Toyota Owners Hub allowed patrons to write letters to servicemen.
NASCAR partners Allegiant Air and Aspen Dental offered free travel and dental service to veterans, respectively. More than 5,000 veterans and their families attended the Coca-Cola 600.
“There is no prouder moment for our sport than when the entire NASCAR family rallies to honor and pay tribute to the United States Armed Forces,” NASCAR COO Brent Dewar stated. “NASCAR Salutes continues to grow thanks to the support of our industry and partners who believe just as strongly in recognizing those who’ve served and continue to serve today.”
Multiple drivers, including Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley drove American flag-themed cars, while Ty Dillon, David Ragan, Gray Gaulding and Michael McDowell sported camouflage schemes. Trevor Bayne and Landon Cassill also had cars painted red, white and blue, while Regan Smith’s #43, which he drove in place of Aric Almirola, was adorned with sponsorship from the Air Force. Corey LaJoie’s #83 car received sponsorship from Hope For The Warriors, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting families of soldiers who died at war. The foundation invited 24 Gold Star family members (those related to a soldier who was killed) to the race.
In the Xfinity Series, Yeley, Ryan Reed and Blake Koch drove cars with patriotic paint schemes. Jeremy Clements partnered with the Spartanburg, South Carolina chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart to feature the group’s sticker on his #51 car.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we can’t thank them and everyone who has served our country enough, especially as we remember those that have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Clements added.
For pre-race ceremonies, in addition to the traditional invocation (by World War II veteran Harold Frank), national anthem (performed by the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division All-American Chorus) and flyover (of four F-15 Eagles from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base), the Charlotte Fire Department Pipe Band played “Amazing Grace” and the Fort Bragg Firing Party fired a 21-gun salute. Two large American flags were unfurled on the tri-oval grass, flanking the track’s Legends Car oval. During the pace laps, fans raised “Rise to Honor” cards featuring the names of veterans close to them.
In the days leading up to the race, NASCAR added a VHT compound to the track’s high line; a resin that has been commercially sold as PJ1 TrackBite, the compound is used to increase the grip of a car along the surface. The addition was made after the previous week’s Monster Energy All-Star Race produced racing that was considered uneventful by fans. VHT was also added to the lower groove at Bristol Motor Speedway in hopes of creating a second lane at the short track.
“We talked through this opportunity with the track, teams, drivers and Goodyear,” NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller said. “There was agreement that this process would enhance the racing we see at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and ultimately would make for an exciting Coca-Cola 600.”
Another addition for the 600 was a fourth stage. Races are typically divided into three stages, with the first two of equal length and the third being half the overall distance. For the 600, the race was split into four equal stages of 100 laps each; prior to the announcement on May 17, the race’s stages were scheduled to end on laps 115 and 230. As the longest race on the NASCAR schedule, Miller commented on the concern of fuel mileage as the reason for adding a fourth stage as NASCAR did not want the race to “end up with a stage break right on top of what would be a fuel window where it could get a little messy with that situation.”
The weekend was marred by concerns of rain. NASCAR Twitter meteorologist Brian Neudorff wrote the “threat of rain increases between 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon and continues until about 7 p.m. in the evening,” with a possibility of thunderstorms by 6 PM EDT. Despite the possibility of the race’s start being postponed as a result, it began without delay.
Kevin Harvick started on the pole alongside Kyle Busch. The two drivers began their battle almost immediately, running side-by-side for the entirety of the first lap, with Harvick edging out Busch by just .02 seconds. Busch took the lead two laps later.
On lap 21, Jeffrey Earnhardt lost a u-joint, causing his car to smoke. The piece went into the #24 and #77 of Chase Elliott and Erik Jones, respectively, entering the former’s oil pan and causing the #24 to catch fire. Brad Keselowski attempted to avoid Elliott, but slammed into his rear end instead, destroying the #2’s nose. As the #2 and #24 wrecked and parted ways, Truex and Johnson were able to weave between the two cars. Jones, who was running as high as 2nd in the race, suffered a broken brake rotor and dropped to 37th for the restart.
The competition caution scheduled for lap 25 was waved off as the wreck served as the caution instead. The restart came on lap 28 with Harvick as the leader; the Californian led until lap 65, when he pitted to begin the cycle of green flag stops, and Busch took back the lead. Busch led for two laps before he also pitted, allowing Johnson to lead until he entered the pits at the conclusion of the lap. Danica Patrick and Ragan, who pitted on lap 24, inherited the top two positions, running until they pitted on lap 76, which led to Truex becoming the leader.
Busch retook the lead with ten laps to go to win Stage #1. Behind him were Truex, Harvick, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.
Harvick and Truex comprised the front row for the start of the second stage on lap 108. Shortly before the green flag, Fox announcers Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon commented on the dropping track temperatures as storm clouds approached the track. Truex, who started on the inside line, had a strong restart to maintain the lead. As the laps progressed, Johnson dueled with Larson, who started in 39th after failing pre-qualifying inspection, for 2nd. Meanwhile, Harvick dropped as one of his tires began to degrade, forcing him to pit on lap 125 and fall behind a lap.
On lap 141, Matt DiBenedetto hit the turn two wall to bring out a caution. Minutes later, lightning struck near the track, forcing NASCAR to call the cars to pit road and evacuate teams and fans as they summoned the red flag. 20 minutes later, NASCAR summoned ten jet dryers and twelve Air Titans to begin the process of drying the track. Over an hour later, NASCAR ordered drivers to return to their cars. The red flag was lifted shortly after, ending the one hour, 40-minute delay.
Truex and Johnson led the field to the restart on lap 153. The former began to pull away from the field, and despite a charge by Johnson, Truex was able to hold him off. On lap 175, Danica Patrick hit the wall after blowing a tire; the green flag waved on lap 180 and Truex led the remainder of the stage to win. Johnson, Kenseth, Kyle and Kurt Busch, McMurray, Austin Dillon, Jones, Larson and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-10.
Stage #3 began on lap 207 with Truex and Johnson continuing to lead the field. While Truex had another good restart, Johnson was unable to do so, falling to 6th. The green flag run lasted until lap 245, when a series of events occurred to force another caution: Larson brushed the turn three wall; Ty Dillon’s car broke a right-end gear and resulted in a hole forming in the housing, forcing him to pit road; Harvick spun as he exited turn four; and Kahne broke a left-side truck arm, got loose on the backstretch and drove into the wall, clipping Bayne’s right front nose. The restart took place on lap 252 as Truex maintained his lead. 40 laps later, Larson blew his right front tire, sending him into the wall and bringing out the caution. The points leader was unable to get his car repaired on time and was removed from the race, finishing 33rd.
While the leaders pitted, Stenhouse stayed out, while a slow stop for Truex relegated him to 4th for the restart with three laps remaining; Hamlin started on the front row alongside Stenhouse. Stenhouse could not gain any momentum on the restart and dropped down the order. Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing 1–2–3 to win Stage #3; Kyle Busch and Kenseth followed. The rest of the top-10 consisted of Truex, Jones, Kurt Busch, Harvick, Daniel Suárez, Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon.
Kyle Busch led the field to the restart on lap 306 after Hamlin had a poor restart; Busch continued to lead until the caution came out on lap 329 for Patrick hitting the wall. The final restart took place on lap 333 and Truex became the leader two laps later.
The final green flag stops took place with 33 laps to go, with Truex among those who pitted. Johnson and Austin Dillon elected to stay out, which made them the leaders. Despite being shuffled back by the stop, Truex began to regain ground on the leaders, closing in on Johnson and Dillon late in the race. With two laps to go, Johnson ran out of fuel and Dillon took the lead. Truex and Kyle Busch could not catch up to the #3 as Dillon pulled away to win his first Cup Series race and the second of the year for Richard Childress Racing. Busch and Truex finished 2nd and 3rd, followed by Kenseth, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Jones, Harvick, Ryan Newman and Earnhardt Jr. Johnson finished 17th. After finishing 33rd, Larson lost his points lead to Truex, who now holds a five-point advantage over the Californian.
Dillon attempted to celebrate his victory by performing a burnout, but ran out of fuel after one spin. The 2011 Camping World Truck Series and 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series champion instead decided to perform a slide into the grass along with his pit crew. His win is the first for the #3 since Dale Earnhardt won the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, while Dillon also became the seventh driver to record his first Cup Series victory at the 600; David Pearson (1961), Jeff Gordon (1994), Bobby Labonte (1995), Kenseth (2000), Casey Mears (2007) and David Reutimann (2009) were the others.
Next week, the Cup Series travels to the Monster Mile, Dover International Speedway, for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @NewEraCap