Top 10 moments in the Coca-Cola 600
May 23, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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A lot can happen over 600 miles.
It was designed to be NASCAR's ultimate test of car and driver, and in many ways, it still is. While vehicles are much more durable than they were back in the day -- when half the starting field was liable to be sidelined with mechanical problems -- the Coca-Cola 600 remains a marathon that tests patience as well as equipment management, and presents unique setup challenges given that it begins in the daytime and concludes under the lights. No other event is as long, no other event presents as many variables, no other event is quite like it.
Which is perhaps why the Memorial Day weekend classic at Charlotte Motor Speedway has produced a list of memorable moments to rival nearly any other event on the schedule. Near-miss heartbreakers, unforeseen triumphs, unlikely first-time winners, dramatic duels, car-eating robot dinosaurs, wacky fuel-mileage finishes -- the 600 has seen them all. Something interesting is always bound to happen, and that’s just in the pre-race show. Add in all those extra miles, and who knows what you might get.
We certainly saw that last season, when a dead battery suffered by leader Kurt Busch under a late red flag period opened the door for Kevin Harvick to take two tires on his final stop and win the event for the second time in three years. Sunday brings the 55th running of one of NASCAR's signature events, one sure to produce a few memorable moments of its own. Until then, here are the top 10.
10. Burt and Bonnett
It felt more like summer in Talladega than spring in Charlotte. On a sweltering day in 1982 when some drivers including Richard Petty needed relief due to the heat, Neil Bonnett and Bill Elliott took part in a memorable duel despite ultimately being the only competitors left on the lead lap. Over the final 160 laps, the two frontrunners swapped the lead six times, with Bonnett overtaking Elliott for good with 13 circuits remaining. The Alabama Gang member won by two car lengths in a race that would be used in the Burt Reynolds film "Stroker Ace," while Elliott -- not yet even a full-time competitor -- showed signs of promise to come.
9. Race to the start
Before there was Junior, before there was Jimmie, the Johnson who ruled at Charlotte went by the name of Joe Lee. The Tennessean claimed his second and final victory in NASCAR's premier circuit in the inaugural 1960 World 600, winning by four laps over Johnny Beauchamp. But the real race was to the starting line -- track founders Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner planned the event for late May, but weeks of delays put the completion of the speedway behind schedule, and the race was rescheduled for June 19. Toiling around the clock, workers finished the 1.5-mile track in time for an inaugural event that clocked in at five hours and 34 minutes, and paid just over a healthy $27,000 to the winner.
8. Mears on fuel mileage
Fuel mileage has played a decisive role more than once over the course of Charlotte's day-to-night marathon, and that was certainly the case when Casey Mears unexpectedly found himself in Victory Lane in 2007. Ranked 35th in the standings to that point, the unheralded fourth Hendrick Motorsports driver ran strong all night, stayed out when leader Tony Stewart and most of the other top contenders pitted for fuel, and then pulled a shocker on a Memorial Day weekend where his uncle Rick had previously won four times at Indianapolis. And it wasn't just Mears -- J.J. Yeley took second, Kyle Petty third and Reed Sorenson fourth in a surprising finishing order at the end of 600 miles.
7. Record domination
Jim Paschal had won the World 600 once before, but that 1964 race became better known for a much more tragic event -- the crash that would hospitalize and ultimately claim the life of legend Glenn "Fireball" Roberts. Three years later, though, Paschal would claim another victory at Charlotte that would be solely his own. And with good reason -- he turned in the most dominant performance ever in the event in 1967, leading 335 of 400 laps, including the final 240. He had to hold on at the end, losing a three-lap advantage after hitting the wall with 61 laps remaining. But his crew patched the car, and Paschal still beat David Pearson by five seconds.
6. Gordon's breakthrough
Hard to believe, but Jeff Gordon had some doubts about himself when he came to Charlotte for the 600 in 1994. Although he was just 22 and in the midst of his second full-time season, Gordon entered NASCAR's longest event on the heels of a rough six-race stretch that had taken a toll on his confidence. The year before, he had come close to victory many times but not broken through. He felt overdue, and in an event famous for first-time winners, he would finally deliver. Gordon stayed patient, and crew chief Ray Evernham called for two tires late that gave his driver the track position necessary to get out front at the end. Gordon led just 16 laps, but he led the last one, and soon all those doubts would be washed away in champagne.
5. Duel of champions
Goodness, was it a long day. Two rain delays. A track-record 113 laps run under caution. Tire issues that (according to the Charlotte Observer) forced Neil Bonnett to pit road 19 times, and Harry Gant to blow four right-fronts. But Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip made it all worthwhile in 1980, the two champions staging an epic duel that would end with Parsons narrowly out front at the checkered flag. With third-place Terry Labonte two laps behind, the leaders were able to decide it among themselves over the final 26 laps. They exchanged the lead five times over the final 26 laps, with Parsons taking it for good with two to go. More than five hours of racing was decided by half a car length at the end.
4. Junior runs dry
Fans were jumping to their feet and the grandstands were exploding in jubilation, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew it was all for naught. He was out of gas, had been since the backstretch of the final lap, so even though he rolled through Turn 4 with the lead he knew it was only a matter of time. "My spotter was like, 'Man they're coming! They're coming!' I was like, 'I'm cruising. What am supposed to do, get out and pedal this thing with my feet?' " Earnhardt said that night in 2011. So he was powerless when Kevin Harvick roared past, claiming victory in a dramatic 600-miler that left NASCAR's most popular driver still on a winless skid that would take more than another year to end.
3. Johnson vs. Labonte
There was that whole "levigation" thing, the grinding process Charlotte underwent prior to the 2005 season intended to smooth out bumps. There were the 22 cautions, still a track record. There was the fire-breathing mechanical dinosaur in the pre-race show that ate junkyard cars. But then there was that incredible finish, with Bobby Labonte -- driving in a FedEx scheme switched to his No. 18 car after teammate Jason Leffler failed to qualify -- doing all he could to hold off Jimmie Johnson in the waning laps. Johnson looked high and low, was denied again and again, but finally caught Labonte off the final corner to win by .027 seconds. The 2000 champ kicked at his car in frustration over what would prove to be his best final shot at winning a race.
2. 'Little David' wins big
David Pearson wasn't the "Silver Fox" in 1961 -- he was just a 26-year-old from Spartanburg, S.C., already nearing a make-or-break point in his young career. He got the latter: a call to drive Ray Fox's Pontiac Catalina in the World 600 at Charlotte, where Pearson led 225 laps. The day was infamous for tire failures, included one that sent Reds Kagle into the guardrail and cost the driver his left leg above the knee. Pearson led by four laps when he suffered a blowout of his own with just over a lap remaining, but he nursed it back to the checkered flag on the rim, sparks flying. It was the first career victory for a driver who that day became known as "Little David the Giant Killer," but would soon be known for much more.
1. Earnhardt shines bright
The Coca-Cola 600 was reinvented as a day-to-night event in 1993, the year after lights were added at the Charlotte track, and nobody in that race shined brighter than Dale Earnhardt. Of course, it didn't exactly start out that way -- the Intimidator was forced to make a pass-through penalty after speeding on pit road. Later, he was sent to the rear of the field for having too many men over the wall. He rebounded and was running second with 73 laps remaining when he spun the lapped car of Greg Sacks trying to get by. For that, Earnhardt was hit with another penalty -- rough driving.
Earnhardt later argued that he never touched Sacks, and that air had caused the spin, but NASCAR officials saw it differently. The penalty was one lap, and suddenly Earnhardt seemed out of it. But a caution for a Rusty Wallace spin helped him get back on the lead lap, and with 39 to go Earnhardt was again up front, and passing Ernie Irvan for the lead. This time, nothing would stop him. Earnhardt went on to win, adding another colorful chapter to both the Intimidator legacy, and that of NASCAR's longest race.