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Thursday, May 21, 2009
Updated: May 28, 2:42 PM ET
Coke 600 is Cup's version of an endurance race

By John Schwarb
Special to ESPN.com

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Kasey Kahne had enough stamina -- and car -- to prevail in the 2008 Coca-Cola 600.

Start Your Engines

Good stuff, that final 10-lap dash for the cash Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway. For the short-attention-span race fan, that's as good as it gets in NASCAR.

Then the polar opposite comes eight days later at the same place.

The Coca-Cola 600 is Sprint Cup's endurance race, starting in daylight and ending under the lights not far from midnight. For die-hard race fans it can be the end to the ultimate test of alertness, if one's day begins with the Monaco Grand Prix, continues with the Indianapolis 500 and then ends with 400 laps at Charlotte.

For the drivers, the test of alertness is just as real from the cockpit.

"I think it's more of a mental thing that our minds are programmed for 500 miles," said three-time defending series champion and three-time 600 winner Jimmie Johnson. "When you hear 'halfway' and you look up at the scoreboard and you realize you've gone 300 and you've got 300 to go, it's kind of a mental thing that you have to focus on."

It's so long that drivers need more than just an in-car water bottle -- they need food. Car owner Ray Evernham once offered Kasey Kahne a PowerBar during a midrace caution, though Kahne tossed it aside. Evernham tried it again the next year and Kahne accepted, amazed at how it refreshed him for the final 100 miles around the 1.5-mile oval.

While the drivers fight fatigue, crew chiefs will battle everything on the car. The 600 is a gearhead's kind of race, with all the adjustments required to get a vehicle to excel in the 80-plus-degree heat at the start and then seamlessly transition to the cooler 60s weather at the end.

"It's key to build adjustability into the car for the day-to-night transition, and you have to anticipate what the track will do between the day and night and how the car will react to those changes in order to stay ahead of it," said Drew Blickensderfer, crew chief for Matt Kenseth's No. 17 Roush Ford.

This is a solid 4½-hour race at its best. The 2005 edition ran a hair under 5 hours, 15 minutes thanks to 103 caution laps.

"What is so different about it is that the last 150 miles is at dark, it's at night and the track is faster, so it's not like the race is slowing down," said Elliott Sadler, driver of the No. 19 Dodge. "The race is actually going faster so it is getting harder on your body instead of easier as the race goes on. As you are getting hot, tired and dehydrated the racetrack is getting faster, so mentally and physically you have to be very prepared."

Many teams will look at the setups that worked in the All-Star Race and hope they carry over. Six times in the past quarter-century the driver who had the winning combination then transferred it to the 600, with Jeff Gordon (1997), Johnson (2003) and Kahne (last year) the active drivers to have done it.

Will that bode well for Tony Stewart to score his first points race win with the new No. 14 Stewart-Haas Chevy team? Maybe, maybe not. Smoke has an average finish of 16.6 in the 600, compared with a 9.5 average effort with one win at the Lowe's fall race, a mere 500-miler.

Amazing what those last 100 miles can do.

"It requires a totally different mindset," said Greg Biffle, ninth in the standings for Roush. "It's kind of like two races. The first half is survival and the second half is making sure the car will handle well into the night and then making your way to the front if you're not already there."

Front-running

Mark Martin: Want to talk championship now? Martin won't, but his win at Darlington vaulted him four spots in points to 11th, inside the Chase window. And consider this: He has a Chase streak not unlike Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Those two have made all five Chases, while Martin has made every one in which he was driving full time (2004-06). If the ageless wonder can tack on another win or two during the summer while maintaining a top-12 spot, he'll likely start the Chase first or second in points after the reseeding based on wins.

But we're not supposed to talk about that.

"All I want to do is be happy and have fun doing this," said the 50-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver. "If you don't set yourself up for disappointment, then it's much easier."

Maybe he won't be disappointed, but he'd be the only one. Momentum and interest are gaining for the No. 5.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

Standings

You Gotta See This

Drafting

Hornish

Sam Hornish Jr.: The Indianapolis 500 will run before the Coca-Cola 600, and the Penske driver should be able to watch without longing to trade his No. 77 Dodge for the No. 6 Dallara. Many wondered if that wouldn't be the case six races into his second full-time Cup season when he was averaging 30th place and finishing off the lead lap every time.

In the past four points races he had another two lousy finishes (blame one on bumper cars at Talladega), but also his first two top-10s. Then at the Sprint Showdown he got his first taste of victory, winning the qualifier to advance to the night finale at Charlotte.

"I wish we didn't have to race our way into the All-Star Race again this year, but it feels good," said Hornish, 31st in points. "I was really happy how everything worked out for us."

Off The Pace

Ragan

David Ragan: A year ago he threatened to crash the Chase at age 23 in his No. 6 Ford, but this year Ragan is the fifth wheel of the Roush Racing stable.

After finishing sixth in the Daytona 500, he has fallen off a cliff, finishing 27th or worse in five of 10 races and cracking the top 20 in only two with a high of 12th. He already has three DNFs after one in all of 2008, and sits 20 spots down the standings compared with a year ago -- 32nd to 12th.

Inside The Numbers

Newman

1: Car finishing all 600 miles in 1987 (Kyle Petty)
6: Poles for Ryan Newman at Charlotte
39: Races since last pole for Newman, a career high
12.3: Average finish for Stewart-Haas this season
18.4: Average finish for Richard Childress Racing
13: Top-10 finishes for Stewart-Haas (two cars)
12: Top-10 finishes for RCR (four cars)
3: Top-10 finishes for Tony Stewart in Indianapolis 500