Monday NASCAR recap: Harvick fittingly wins bizarre Coca-Cola 600; NASCAR made correct call

Jared C. Tilton

The Coca-Cola 600 was one of the strangest NASCAR races in recent memory, fittingly won by a lame-duck driver.

With a falling TV cable damaging cars and injuring spectators to a multitude of mechanical failures and accidents sidelining many a big name, Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was as bizarre a race as NASCAR has seen in quite a while.

Which is why when the smoke wafted away and the damage cleared from the 4-hour, 35-minute marathon, it seemed appropriate that it was Kevin Harvick who best withstood 11 caution periods and two red flags alongside a team he has already announced that he will be parting ways with at year's end.

"This is one of those nights you just know going into it you got to grind away lap after lap," Harvick said following his 21st career win. "Just keep yourself on the lead lap, not make any mistakes."

At various points Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne each looked like the driver to beat. However, NASCAR's longest race is about more than raw speed; it's an endurance test for both man and machine unlike any other event in the sport.

And as Harvick bided his time, each contender slowly succumbed to various maladies.

While leading, Kyle Busch's chance at victory took a major hit -- literally -- when his car was struck by part of the tethering system used for one of Fox's overhead cameras.

His team was allowed to make repairs during an unusual 15-minute break granted by NASCAR, but more trouble soon followed.

Yet again an engine issue proved to be Busch's undoing, as a sour motor ended his night just past halfway.

In the last 18 months, engine reliability has been Joe Gibbs Racing's biggest Achilles' heel. And no one has been more affected than Busch, who missed the Chase last season in large part because of reliability concerns.

"I've got more f****** blowups than I do wins!" Busch vented to his crew as he limped to the garage. "There's nothing to fix! It's f****** broke! It's pointless."

The successful night for Kenseth, who led 112 laps, went by the wayside when an untimely yellow put him in the back of the pack where he was subsequently collected in a multi-car wreck involving Jimmie Johnson.

As for Kurt Busch, he was in the lead when a dead battery necessitated an unscheduled pit stop.

So with 14 laps left the taxing race left just two challengers standing, Kahne and Harvick, with the former clearly having the superior car.

But instead of pitting during what was the evening's final caution, Kahne stayed on the track while the rest of the lead lap cars hit pit road for fresh rubber.

The decision left him a sitting duck on the sprint to the finish, and wouldn't you know it, there was Harvick, a lame-duck, riding in second ready to pounce.

"You know, coming into this particular race, it's going to be a long night. You're going to have to survive," Harvick said. "We had some strange circumstances with the cable.

"Just a great night. Gil (Martin, crew chief) made a great call at the end, we were able to put ourselves in position and survive until the point of when it was time to go."

He wasted little time and by the time the field sped down the backstretch, Harvick, who is joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, was in the lead and pulling away for his second win of the year.

Inevitably, with SHR in the midst of a slump, there is conjecture whether Harvick is making the wisest of decisions leaving Richard Childress Racing.

But the deal is already done and neither driver nor car owner cares to speculate on the future and the end to their 13-year partnership.

"You look at what we're doing and we're focused on this year," Harvick said. "We go out and race week to week, do the things that we do to try to win races, win a championship.

"Whatever happens in the future, we'll work on some other time. Right now we're working on winning next week's race."

The mindset is no different than how they approached the 600: Just survive and focus on the present while letting circumstances dictate the rest.

Thus far, despite the chaos that may surround them, it's a formula that has worked seamlessly.

NASCAR made the correct ruling under difficult circumstances

NASCAR has long been accused of making decisions that serve its best interests -- rule book be damned -- and worrying about the justification of those decisions later.

But there are times when deviating from standard operating procedure is the correct call. Sunday night, following a TV cable falling onto the racing surface and severely damaging cars, was one of those instances.

By way of fate, Busch, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and others had been dealt a cruel blow, one they were not responsible for causing. "My f****** car is killed," Busch radioed his team.

Having been put in the unenviable position through no fault of its own, NASCAR was facing a dilemma of having one of its crown jewel races decided by outside circumstances.

So officials did what was fair, calling for an extraordinary 15-minute break to allow teams to fix their damaged machines.

This wasn't just ignoring the rule book; this was rewriting it midstream.

The easy thing for NASCAR to do would have been to throw up its hands and give the time-tested statement of "That's racing", citing how luck plays a large role in who wins and losses every week.

This was the thought process when in 2004 at Martinsville, large chunks of concrete punctured a hole in Jeff Gordon's radiator while he was leading. Matt Kenseth even cited this very scenario during the stoppage.

"I can't believe they're (NASCAR) doing that," Kenseth told his team over the radio.

Although it may have been unprecedented, it was also appropriate.

This was different than Martinsville, however, where something outside of the field of play directly interfered with the outcome. Using sportsmanship as its barometer, NASCAR correctly realized the situation needed to be corrected.

"We felt it was best to give the guys time to make the repairs," Robin Pemberton told USA TODAY Sports. "It wasn't their fault. You can't always do that, but this time, we thought it would be in the best interest of the competitors and the fans."

While the move wasn't necessarily popular, even those who disagreed understood the reasoning.

"The guys that were running well and didn't have any damage, the last thing you wanted was to see 15-minutes of free open-minded work on other competitor's race cars," said Jimmie Johnson. "But I really think it was the right thing to do. They handled it correctly."

Of course once you open Pandora's Box, it's hard to go back with a precedent having now been set.

And the next time some unusual occurrence takes place -- and it will, considering in the past 15 months we've see races interrupted due to a jet dryer exploding and a camera apparatus collapse -- teams will reference Charlotte as to why they should be allowed a break.

When this predictably occurs, NASCAR will follow the same script it always does, simply tossing the rule book aside doing whatever is deemed in its best interests at that particular moment. The difference was that Sunday the correct call was in the best interests of everyone involved and not just NASCAR's.

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