Coca-Cola 600: What moments made the race
May 25, 2014, Brad Parrott, Special to NASCAR.com, NASCAR.com
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Editor's note: Brad Parrott, a 19-time winner in NASCAR national series competition, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here, he breaks down the key moments of the Coca-Cola 600 every 100 miles into the 600-mile race, from pit road to the track.
KEY MOMENT: The key moment of the race happened every 100 miles: Jimmie Johnson was in the top five. He led 164 laps and was never out of contention for the victory. He had some challengers in Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, but in the end, Johnson made a statement at the track he's been known to dominate.
Jimmie Johnson led 51 laps (95 miles) -- all but three laps -- in the first 100 miles of the race. Kevin Harvick's car was very fast, moving up from 11th to second. If he can keep his early speed, it could be his race. But Clint Bowyer may be the one showing the most strength so far in the race, making a strong charge to the front from his starting position of fifth up to second.
The first caution of the night -- a debris caution -- gave Jamie McMurray and the No. 1 team a big break, since the No. 1 car was sitting in the lucky dog position when the yellow flag flew. The flag only continued the onward push of McMurray, who moved up from a starting position of 26th to one spot just outside the top 10. But as the last car on the lead lap, he'll have a lot of time to make up between himself and leader Kevin Harvick. Can he do it? Another driver who had a strong second set of laps is Jeff Gordon, making his way up from a starting spot of 27th to the top five.
The sun lost its sight of the track about 250 miles into the 600-mile race, marking what almost amounted to the end of one race and the start of another. What does that mean for Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, who have run so well under the sun? Harvick has been leading with a tight car, and as the track cools down you can expect a tight car to come to you. Johnson and the No. 48 team pulled a spring rubber out of his left rear already, and with five more stops, teams can continue to perfect their cars. The Hendrick Motorsports cars, and Harvick, seem to be adjusting the best to the change in track.
Hendrick engines have failed twice as the second half of the race started. Danica Patrick was the first driver to have symptoms of engine trouble, losing a cylinder around Lap 220. Kurt Busch saw similar issues around Lap 260, saying on the radio he was down two cylinders and wouldn't last much longer. The other cars with Hendrick engines have not yet shown any signs of difficulty, but we've still got 200 miles left at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson hit pit road on the Lap 273 caution caused by Kurt Busch's engine failure just before pit road was closed, giving the six-time champion a big boost up into the top spot. On what amounted to essentially a free pit stop, Johnson took four tires and will have clean air as well. He's been in the top three at every 100-mile mark and has led over 35 percent of the laps so far, and will be the car to beat in the last 100 miles. His toughest competition will be Matt Kenseth.
Carl Edwards had planned on stretching his fuel to the end of the race, but a caution with 20 laps to go made the No. 99 team rethink his strategy. He took four tires and won the race off pit road, giving him a fifth-place starting position and the freshest tires up front.
KEY PIT STOP: Carl Edwards and the No. 99 pitted late, trying to make the last 54 laps on fuel. Unfortunately, the plan didn't work out, with a caution coming on Lap 380 and sending Edwards down pit road for four tires. The strategy failure opened the doors for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth to make a run against Jeff Gordon on the restart. Gordon's two tires couldn't hold them off, and Johnson would go on to make the trip to Victory Lane.
Kasey Kahne had his pit stall blocked by the No. 83 and had to abort his stop and go around the track and down pit road for a second time to prevent a wreck. Can he recover? He's struggled to get his car just the way he likes it, but the No. 5 team believes it is getting close.
With only 10 drivers on the lead lap, the leaders were able to take some more time on pit road. Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer each took four tires, as many of the teams decided to stay out under yellow and make up track position.
Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch all took the wave around on the first caution, but had not yet pitted when the second caution flag came out, which meant their earlier strategy of staying out paid off and the drivers kept their spots on the lead lap. Not so lucky were Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne, who both pitted just before the caution flag came out, sending them a lap down.
Kevin Harvick was looking like the car to beat when he told his team over the radio he was struggling with a loose wheel. He had to come back down pit road, and a bad break may not be all that bad, as Harvick could be the beneficiary of the next caution should it come out. The rest of the field will still be 20 laps short of gas and need to make the same amout of pit stops anyway.
Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick weren't as lucky as Jimmie Johnson on the Lap 273 caution -- both had already made green flag pit stops when the yellow flag came out, and Harvick wasn't happy that his teammate, Kurt Busch, was the one who got him in that situation. The strategy that won McMurray the All-Star race seems like it won't serve him well here; without the 20-lap segments, the driver won't have time to recover.
Brad Keselowski's bold strategy looked like it could bring him to Victory Lane, but a loose wheel brought him back down pit road. His attitude certainly changed after the issue, with crew chief Paul Wolfe reiterating that the rest of the field still had to pit. Still, it was a lot of ground for the No. 2 team to make up, coming in 10th at the race's finish.
KEY CALL OF THE NIGHT: At the end of the night, the track didn't loosen up as much as it had in past years, retaining a lot of the heat it had during the start of the race. Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson were expecting a tight car to come to them, but the track didn't let that happen. The experience of the two meant this wasn't an issue at all, making adjustments in each of their 10 pit stops to bring the car close and closer to where the six-time champion wanted it. Starting on the pole and finishing in Victory Lane, Johnson definitely silenced those wondering if he'd make it into the Chase.
The sun came out in Turn 2 around the backstretch and into Turn 3 after a cloudy start to the race. A car that's tight right when the track is warmer will be better later on as it cools, so those who are loose are going to be worse later on, but the drivers reporting tight cars will have a better race car later on. If those drivers can handle the tight car for a little longer, they will see the benefit later on.
Eight cars took the wavearound under the race's first caution, called for debris, to get back on the lead lap. The teams that took the wavearound -- 43, 10, 14, 31, 51, 99, 5 and 41 -- will have to pit 10-15 laps sooner than those who did take the caution, but with only a little ware on their tires, it's a strong call. Should another caution come out before they have to pit, the gamble will pay off.
Brad Keselowski decided to stay out when the caution flag flew on Lap 164, preventing any other drivers from getting the wavearound. He held on to the lead until Lap 194, when Kevin Harvick's number 4 would take the top spot back. That same pit stop, Jimmie Johnson opted for four tires, restarting fifth. By Lap 200 (mile 300), Johnson's tire strategy was showing its worth, moving up to second and showing more speed that most.
The No. 1 car stayed out for a second caution in a row when the fifth yellow flag flew. McMurray and his team made the strategy call earlier and had to stick with it to hold on to track position. Interestingly, they'd still have to make the same number of stops -- three -- as everyone else if the race stayed green from that caution on. If he'd had ten fewer laps in his gas tank, he would have had to stop. The clean air would keep him out front, running his fastest lap of the race on Lap 243.
Brad Keselowski and his team have made a lot of off-sequence pit calls so far tonight. The last call of deciding to stay out under caution helped give the team good track position, and the No. 2 team is back on sequence with the leaders with presumably two pit stops left to go. The Miller Lite Ford team has been putting themselves in position to only take two tires on the final stop.
Matt Kenseth set the tone for the final pit stop by pitting ahead of the other leaders and taking four fresh tires. Jimmie Johnson followed suit, but Jeff Gordon decided to try and repeat his success of 20 years ago by only taking two tires. The strategy didn't work, though, and Kenseth sped past Gordon's older tires to take the lead on the final restart.