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Caraviello: From day to dark, it all can change in the 600

May 28, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- It was a wonderful and welcome dusk that settled over Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday. The looming twilight brought relief from the Memorial Day weekend heat that earlier in the afternoon had sent spectators huddling in whatever cover they could find. Clouds in the distance became dappled with pastel colors. This historic facility felt transformed and alive as the tall stadium lights clicked on, the long shadows formed, and the longest event on the NASCAR calendar began its inevitable journey from daytime to darkness.

In the race cars that circumnavigated the facility, though, it was another matter altogether. The Coca-Cola 600 had been under way for roughly two hours, but in many ways it was just beginning. Behind steering wheels and on top of pit boxes, the real work of getting a handle on this 1.5-mile track was about to begin. Asphalt cooled. Vehicles tightened. Strategies were altered. And this marathon of a stock-car race started to take on a very different character, one that involved much more than just a brilliant sky turning from light blue to black.

It's always that way in this event, at this track, on this weekend, at least since the lights went up at Charlotte and a new wrinkle was added to a race that featured plenty of them already. It's the single characteristic that separates the 600 from everything else, that makes it a guessing game as much as a marathon, that frustrates some teams and delights others. It's that day-to-night transition that defines this race, that on Sunday helped Kasey Kahne into Victory Lane and left Greg Biffle leaning against his car on pit road, wondering how it got away.

"It's so frustrating," Biffle said after having the event's dominant car, and coming home fourth. "You're driving your heart out, you're wondering, 'Am I doing something wrong? Come on, come on.' You're doing all you can do, but the car won't do what you want it to do. You just take what it gives you, otherwise you wreck it. And I just about wrecked it a half a dozen times trying to get forward."

Biffle led 204 laps Sunday, twice as many as any other driver in a race that featured long green-flag runs that helped his No. 16 Ford put one car after another lap down. Early on he led for extensive stretches, and still showed an ability to get to the front even as the race neared its final 100 laps. But once the sun goes down at Charlotte, things can change quickly. One moment he was uncatchable, the next he was asking for more from his car than it could give him. And at the opposite end of the spectrum was Kahne, who lurked for the first half of the race but didn't lead a lap until the event was more than halfway over.

* Kahne wins Coca-Cola 600 | Victory Lane | Reactions

And when that curtain of darkness fell over the Charlotte track, his No. 5 Chevy found an extra gear. Kahne's vehicle flourished on the cooler asphalt, roaring along the high line to seize the lead after a restart and pacing 94 of the event's final 120 laps. He was as untouchable at the end as Biffle had been at the beginning. There are always circumstances, of course -- in an effort to gain track position late, Biffle's crew chief, Matt Puccia, twice tried two-tire stops that didn't work as planned -- but everything came back to Biffle's car being better at one point, and Kahne's car being better at another.

The reason? As the track cooled and speeds increased, Biffle said the nose of his car started sliding up the race track. Meanwhile, Kahne's vehicle rocketed forward. "Once the night fell, Kasey really took off," Biffle said. "That's where he shined. Earlier in the day he wasn't very fast. The night fell, and he just came out of nowhere."

That can happen in the 600, which is part of the beauty of the event. It's long, it's arduous, it can leave drivers sitting worn out on the pit road after its conclusion. It's a race of mechanical attrition that can fry car parts, as AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose found out Sunday. But it's also a complete moving target, the transition of time and temperature altering the complexion -- and as is so often the case, even the outcome -- of the event.

"It's probably one of the biggest headaches, and the hardest one to call," said Darian Grubb, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, who finished second. "But it's also the longest, so we have more time to overcome mistakes. If they happen to you at the end, it really hurts. But if they happen to you early, you at least have some time to overcome things during the race."

That much was on vivid display Sunday. Jimmie Johnson's team managed the changing conditions and kept the No. 48 car in contention until the gas can -- along with the attached gas man -- were dragged out of the pits on the last stop of the night. The penalty was a stop-and-go, which cost Johnson a lap and scuttled any hopes the Sprint All-Star Race winner had of sweeping the two weeks in Charlotte.

* Late pit-road miscue proves costly for Johnson | Watch

On the flip side was Brad Keselowski, who lost a lap because of a pit-road speeding penalty incurred on the event's first round of stops, but had enough time to make up the track position and finish fifth. In his case, the distance was a blessing.

"No doubt," Keselowski said. "We came back from a lot, and we needed every lap we could get."

In this race, though, the day-to-night transition is the real star, even though not every finish Sunday was a product of the changing conditions. Grubb said he and Hamlin worked on the car for the whole race, taking some big swings in terms of adjustments in an effort to get the No. 11 in the best shape at the best time. Ultimately, they used up too much of the car trying to catch Kahne on one of the final runs of the night. In the garage after the race, Puccia was still unhappy with the role the pair of two-tire stops had played in derailing one of the best cars in the race.

"The teams that make smart choices on what the track's going to do when the sun goes down are the ones that are going to shine," he said. "We just got a little bit behind. I don't think it was the [sun] going down, because we were really fast up until then. ... We just weren't where we needed to be at the end of the race."

Clearly Kahne's car was, and he had the nighttime conditions to partly thank for it. For crew chiefs, the 600 is not necessarily an either/or equation, of picking one time of day you want the car to be best and simply holding on through the other. It's more of a matter of starting with a car that's strong off the truck, of managing the changing conditions, of making a few guesses and hoping for the best. At least, that's how it was for Kenny Francis, Kahne's crew chief, on Sunday.

"You always hope you can make it better at the end, but you really never know," he said. "You're kind of taking an educated guess at things and hoping they work out. If anybody knows it better than that, I don't know. You just kind of look at each situation as it's presented to you and try to do your best with it, and hope that you're making the right call. [Sunday night] everything worked out well. We felt like we had a good car coming in. You've got to get your car fairly close in practice, and hope you've got a good base to work from, and ... there's probably five or six cars that have that. And then its all about you hopefully hitting it at the right time. It worked out [Sunday night] for us for sure."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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