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Going into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, most in the garage expected the Roush Fenway Racing cars to dominate the event. David Ragan had won the pole and the Sprint Showdown the week before, Carl Edwards easily won the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and Matt Kenseth beat teammates Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Saturday's Nationwide Series Top Gear 300.
Despite the dominance Roush Fenway Racing showed the last two weeks in Charlotte, it was Richard Childress Racing that was hoisting the trophy and celebrating in victory lane at the end of the night.
Roush Fenway Racing: 2nd, 13th, 14th, 16th
Throughout the garage, it was clear the Roush cars were the ones to beat, and once the green flag dropped that proved to be the case. In the first 300-miles, Kenseth and Edwards dominated the top spots. Edwards was the first of the Roush cars to find the lead, but it did not take long for Kenseth and Ragan to challenge.
Once Kenseth took the lead from Ragan on Lap 108, the No. 17 Ford set sail. Kenseth went on to lead five times for a total of 103 laps. Once the race transitioned into night and other teams began using varying pit strategies, Kenseth and Edwards fell to the middle of the pack.
Kenseth was able to recover in the closing laps and make a charge to the front, but fell short on fuel and was forced to pit road with eight laps to go finishing the night in 14th. Edwards, on the other hand, was never able to fully recover from being mired deep in the pack. Saving enough fuel to the end, Edwards was slowed by the incident on the final restart and finished 16th.
Greg Biffle struggled for much of the early stages of the 600-mile event as his cooling system was malfunctioning. With temperatures soaring, Biffle's temper flared as the team scrambled to keep their driver cool under the helmet. Once the issue was resolved, the No. 16 Ford came to life and was in a position to win in the closing laps. Leading the race when Jimmie Johnson's engine failure brought out the final caution, Biffle was forced to pit for fuel and finished 13th.
One of the faster cars all race long, Ragan was able hit pit road under the final caution and make the right moves when Kasey Kahne ran out of gas on the green-white-checkered restart. Able to avoid the incident, Ragan went on to finish the night in second – a career best.
Richard Childress Racing: 1st, 15th, 21st, 29th
For most of the Coca-Cola 600 the RCR cars were quiet and never really made a charge. It was only in the closing laps that Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer were able to have a chance.
Kevin Harvick battled an ill-handling car for much of the early stages of the race, as did teammate Clint Bowyer. Jeff Burton took two tires under the first caution of the day to lead laps, but the call backfired as the No. 31 seemed to fall back through the field almost immediately. Paul Menard struggled through an injury on his right foot, spinning the car on Lap 241.
When the caution came at the end of the race, Burton and Menard were able to help Harvick save fuel. As he shut the engine off in the No. 29 Chevrolet, Burton and Menard pushed Harvick down the track.
Harvick was able to save enough fuel and capitalize when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others ran out of gas, taking his third win of the season. Burton took the final restart in sixth, but was turned by Carl Edwards when Kahne ran out of fuel.
Joe Gibbs Racing: 3rd, 10th, 32nd
In the opening stages of Sunday's race, Kyle Busch appeared to be the only car that could challenge the Roush cars for the lead. The No. 18 Toyota was out front twice for 55 laps, but two single car incidents ruined Busch's night. Working through traffic and trying to keep pace with Kenseth, Busch pushed the car too far and lost it. The second incident sent the car behind the wall and ended Busch's night in 32nd.
Denny Hamlin was also a contender, however an engine issue kept the No. 11 Toyota from reaching its full potential. Complaining that the motor would die off at the end of the straightaways, crew chief Mike Ford determined something was clogging the jets in the carburetor. Catching a late-race caution, Hamlin brought the car to pit road and the crew changed carburetors and kept the No. 11 on the lead lap. With full power under the hood, Hamlin made a charge in the closing laps, but ran out of gas on the white flag lap to finish 10th.
Quiet most of the day, Joey Logano received the free pass twice and was able to make the right moves on the final restart. Following David Ragan through the chaos, Logano finished the night in third – by far his best finish of the year.
Hendrick Motorsports: 7th, 20th, 28th, 34th
Throughout the night, the only two Hendrick Motorsports cars to make noise up front were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. Mark Martin was taken out in a wreck with David Gilliland on Lap 303, and Jeff Gordon was never really a factor.
Earnhardt Jr. had a strong car throughout the event and was in position to lead when Kahne ran out of fuel. Taking the white flag in the top spot, the tank ran dry for Earnhardt Jr. as he headed down the backstretch. Losing the lead to Harvick, Earnhardt Jr. coasted across the finish line in seventh.
It was definitely an up and down day for the No. 48 team. Although he failed to lead a lap, Johnson had a strong car, but the team once again struggled on pit road. Running in the 10th spot with four laps to go, the engine under the hood of the No. 48 let go, relegating them to a 28th place finish.
Here are what a few of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers had to say after Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:
KASEY KAHNE (leading on final restart but finished 22nd): "I ran out of gas (on the restart). We were trying to make it. It was just our strategy. That was our plan. ... We had to. It was our only chance to finish in the top 20."
DENNY HAMLIN (ran out of fuel while running second on last lap): "You can't run second on the back straightaway and be happy with 10th. ... My eyes got huge when I saw everyone running out in front of us. As soon as they got big, they got small – because we ran out of fuel. ... We're back being competitive like we should be, and we're going to win some races here soon."
JIMMIE JOHNSON (blew an engine with four laps to go, finished 28th): "What I'm taking from this week is that we had a fast car. Unfortunately four laps from the end, we lost an engine – which never happens. We've had a lot of things go our way over the years and the last couple of weeks, things have not gone our way and that's just how it goes."
KURT BUSCH (fourth): "It's amazing that we can race 600 miles and it comes down to a green-white-checkered finish and fuel mileage. That's the excitement that this sport brings, and you never know when it's going to be your time to have fuel or not."
KEVIN HARVICK (won the race, but felt bad for Dale Earnhardt Jr.): "I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth. Man, when I saw that thing slowing down, I was like, 'I really want to win the race, but why can't it be on a day when we're running bad or have something going wrong?' I think everybody sitting up here would say we want the 88 to win. ... I feel so stinking bad for him, and I know how bad he wants it. They keep running like that, it'll happen."
RICKY STENHOUSE JR. (finished 11th in Sprint Cup Series debut): "That was interesting. ... It was everything I thought it was going to be. The 600 miles didn't seem too bad. I still feel pretty good, so that's good. Our trainer at the shop must be working me out pretty good."
MARCOS AMBROSE (finished sixth): "That's the longest race I've ever been a part of, I can tell you that, without switching drivers around. It's just a big thrill to finish one. This is my third try and I hadn't finished one, so I'm proud of my team and proud of our record."
REGAN SMITH (finished eighth): "I guess you can say the longest race of the season paid off in our favor. .... The pit strategy was perfect, which was the main reason we made a pretty good leap near the end of the race. It was a good points day as we continue to fight for a top-20 position in the driver standings."
DAVE ROGERS (crew chief, Kyle Busch): "Kyle just tried to do the impossible, and that's why we love him. We know he gives us 100 percent and he doesn't ever leave any on the table. Tonight, he just tried to take a little bit too much and it got away from him. That's why we love Kyle Busch – he only knows one speed: Full throttle."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the ledge of his No. 88 car's window opening as it rolled silently into the Sprint Cup Series garage, steering it like a kid sitting sideways on a bike.
NASCAR's most popular driver navigated the car through the darkness of Charlotte Motor Speedway and into one of the garage stalls, guided it between two pit boxes and hopped out as his crew members arrived to bring it to a halt.
There seemed to be only a brief moment of disappointment on his face before he began smiling and patting the crew on their backs, exchanging handshakes and shoulder shrugs over a near-win turned seventh-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600.
"What can you do, you know?" Earnhardt Jr. said.
And really, there was no answer.
Earnhardt Jr. had tried – along with the rest of the field – to milk his fuel mileage until the finish of NASCAR's longest race. Declining to pit on the green-white-checkered overtime laps would be risky – the team engineers told crew chief Steve Letarte that Earnhardt Jr. would run out of fuel on the backstretch of the final circuit – but both driver and team agreed the best call was to go for the win.
By the time he took the white flag – one lap away from victory – Earnhardt Jr. was already at peace with whatever happened next.
Would he finally snap his agonizingly long winless streak? Or would he run out of gas, breaking the hearts of his rabid army of fans who have been so desperate to see him win?
Earnhardt Jr. hit the throttle and hoped for the best.
"I was going around (Turns) 1 and 2, and (spotter) T.J. (Majors) was saying, 'Seven car lengths (ahead). Eight car lengths,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm thinking, 'This is a real good feeling.' I knew we could run out of gas; I already had my mind geared for that in case that happened so I wouldn't be too upset."
But before he even got to Turn 3 on the final lap, his car sputtered and lost power. He was out of gas, just as the engineers had predicted.
Majors came on the radio and frantically informed his driver that Kevin Harvick's No. 29 car and the rest of the field were closing at a rapid rate. But there was nothing Earnhardt Jr. could do at that point.
Although it appeared he ran out of fuel just before the final turn, his gas tank had actually run dry on the backstretch. His momentum simply carried him through Turn 3 and, slowly waning, to the finish line.
"My car just kept up enough speed and it didn't look like we were out," Earnhardt Jr. said. "My spotter's like, 'Man, they're coming! They're coming!' And I'm like, 'I'm cruising. What am I supposed to do, get out of this thing and pedal with my feet?'"
Majors was certain the team had won the race – finally breaking Earnhardt Jr.'s triple-digit winless streak – as the driver took the white flag.
"Hell yeah I'd thought we'd won it," Majors said. "But we ran good. Put ourselves in position to win. That's all you can really do, right?"
That's all crew chief Steve Letarte felt he could really do. The crew chief said teams must ask themselves: "Did you come to run in the top 10, or did you come to win?"
And the No. 88 came to win, he said.
"We had to try," said Earnhardt Jr., echoing his crew chief's philosophy. "Think about it, man – winning the 600! That'd be awesome. I had to try, you know? Had to try."
Letarte, leaning against the side of the No. 88 hauler, pointed at Turn 3 and then glanced toward the direction of the finish line.
"I don't know how much fuel it takes to get from there to there, but that's what we needed," he said, adding that his trophy case "isn't full enough" to make any other decision but the one that could result in a win.
"We come to get trophies," he added. "That's two races this year – Martinsville and here – that we had a shot to win in the last 25 laps."
The winless streak still lives on, though. And coming so close, Majors was asked if the team – and Earnhardt Jr., one of his closest friends – would start to doubt whether a trip to Victory Lane would ever come.
"Naw, man!" Majors said. "It's to the point now where we just keep finishing top five and running up there, and we'll win 'em. That's how you win races – you keep putting yourself in that position."
Said Earnhardt Jr.: "We're getting close enough that a couple of 'em about fell in our lap, and if we get that extra little step, we'll be in business."
At the start of the weekend, the driver had been skeptical such a good result was within the team's grasp. The No. 88 had a sub-par performance in last week's All-Star Race – which teams use as a tuneup for the 600 – and Letarte even acknowledged being "embarrassed" at how the car ran.
So when Earnhardt Jr.'s car showed promise in the practice sessions leading up to the 600, the driver was only cautiously optimistic.
"Even though we were real fast in practice, I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, well I've seen this before,' you know?" he said. "When the race starts, we'll see what we have. And it was great. The first three runs, it was phenomenal."
But having a good car and coming so close, he acknowledged, was a disappointment.
Standing in the steamy garage on a muggy Carolina evening, Earnhardt Jr. winced as sweat dripped from his forehead and stung his eyes. He asked for a towel and wiped his face, looking worn out – but not beaten.
Thanks to scoring the win in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, Kevin Harvick was able to jump three spots in the series standings to second. Only 36 points behind Carl Edwards, Harvick now has the most wins in 2011 with three.
Kurt Busch was the other big mover in the top 10 in points, jumping three spots to sixth following his fourth place run. Kyle Busch fell two spots to fifth and Ryan Newman dropped three spots to 10th. Joey Logano was the biggest mover of the day after his third place finish bumped him up five spots to 23rd.
Keeping with the theme of the day, Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 saw one of the wildest finishes in recent memory as the nearly every one in the field stretched the fuel mileage and the race was pushed into a green-white-checkered finish.
When Kasey Kahne ran out of gas on the final restart in the lead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved into the top spot. As Kahne and Jeff Burton wrecked behind him, no caution was thrown and the fan favorite took the white flag in the lead. Going down the backstretch on the final lap, Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas, allowing Kevin Harvick to take the lead coming off the final corner.
Here's how they finished:
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' longest race of the year came down to the final laps as fuel mileage and a green-white-checkered restart led to a wild finish and a last lap pass for the win.
When Jimmie Johnson blew an engine running 10th, the caution flew and the race was pushed into overtime. With nearly all of the leaders close on fuel, it became a test to see which driver had saved enough fuel.
Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the field to the final green-white-checkered restart, but Kahne ran out of fuel going into the first turn. As Earnhardt Jr. powered to the lead, Kahne stacked the field up, with Jeff Burton spinning to the inside.
With no caution thrown, Earnhardt Jr. took the white flag in the lead, but ran out of gas going down the backstretch on the final lap. Exiting the fourth turn, Kevin Harvick was able to move around the outside of Earnhardt Jr. and take the win.
Leading only two laps all night, Harvick scored his third victory of the year and jumped three spots in the championship standings to second.
David Ragan and Joey Logano survived the incident on the restart and had enough fuel in the tank to finish second and third, respectively.
"We could have done all that in 40 laps and been at the house a couple hours ago," Ragan said. "That's just how competitive the Sprint Cup Series is. We can race for 600 miles and there's still 15 cars that's got a shot to win it at the end. So I think that is something that is good about our sport."
"If you didn't get them on the first couple laps of a restart, you might as well ride around the rest of the run," Logano said. "I think that's why a lot people did a lot of pit strategy, trying to get their car up there. It was a lot different race than what we normally see in Charlotte."
Kurt Busch also made his way through the late-race incident to finish fourth.
“It’s amazing that we can race 600 miles and it comes down to a green-white-checkered finish and fuel mileage," Busch said. "That’s the excitement that this sport brings and you never know when it’s going to be your time to have fuel or not. Today, we had enough and Steve (Addington) made a great call to come in and top-off for fuel. It worked out and we made the right calculations to make it to the end of the race.”
Roush Fenway Racing's Matt Kenseth dominated the early stages of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, leading five times for a total of 103 laps. Stuck in the middle of the pack as pit strategy jumbled the field, Kenseth's car came to life in the closing laps of the race. However, Kenseth was forced to pit road with eight laps to go. When the checkered flag flew, Kenseth was 14th on the board.
Here we go. It's time for NASCAR's longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600.
So in between bites of your hot dogs and burgers and sips of beer, come hang out with us right here in the SB Nation race chat.
Make sure the auto-refresh box is checked so you can see the latest comments from other fans. Who do you think will win tonight?
It's NASCAR race night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about the Coca-Cola 600 for you below.
Start time: The command to start engines will be given by a group of military people at 6:10 p.m. Eastern time. After a few pace laps, the green flag will wave at precisely 6:19 p.m. Eastern. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the actual race, flip your TV on at 6:19.
Race name/distance: The Coca-Cola 600, formerly the World 600, is one of NASCAR's crown jewel events and is the longest race of the season – 600 miles, obviously. How many laps does it take to go 600 miles around Charlotte Motor Speedway? That would be 400 (it's a 1.5-mile track).
TV and radio: As for all of the races through May, FOX is televising the Charlotte race. FOX only has one more race after this, then turns over the broadcasting to TNT for a six-race stretch. The radio broadcast can be found on your local Performance Racing Network (PRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of PRN stations where you can listen.
National anthem: Formerly known as "Hootie" in the band Hootie and the Blowfish, rocker-turned-country singer Darius Rucker will perform the national anthem. Prior to Rucker's performance, the track will have a 21-gun salute and a bugler from Ft. Bragg will play taps.
Tickets: There are still tickets available for the Coca-Cola 600 if you're thinking of making a last-minute trip today.
Weather: Pack your sunblock. It's going to feel like summer throughout most of the day on Sunday with highs in the upper 80s, according to the NASCAR Weatherman's forecast for Charlotte.
Last time: Kurt Busch completed his Speedweeks sweep in 2010, giving team owner Roger Penske another Memorial Day Weekend victory. Busch and Jamie McMurray had the best cars throughout the race, but Busch beat out McMurray on a late pit stop, then overtook three cars who didn't pit.
Starting lineup for tonight's Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway:
Kimi Raikkonen's NASCAR Nationwide Series debut didn't turn out as the former Formula One World Champion had hoped. As a result, it's possible his first Nationwide race could be his last.
The "Iceman" struggled to get his car to turn throughout the Top Gear 300 on a hot, steamy Charlotte afternoon – and grew increasingly frustrated as the race went on. When it was over, the Finland native was in 27th place, four laps down.
"It was nice in the beginning and I could overtake on the restart," he said. "But it really turned out to be really bad, the handling. ... Once it got difficult, you cannot race and you really try to survive through the corners. Up until that point, it was fun."
Was it fun enough for Raikkonen to return to America for more NASCAR racing after he returns to the World Rally Car circuit in Europe?
"I don't know yet," he said.
If that was the end of Raikkonen's NASCAR career (he ran last week's Truck Series race at Charlotte), it probably left a bad taste in his mouth. In addition to his handling struggles, he ran over a huge piece of debris that lodged under his car, hit the wall three times, struggled with hydration and found the car to be extremely hot (he complained of burning feet and legs that required him to keep them off the floorboard).
Still, Raikkonen's performance was very respectable. He had never even driven a Nationwide Series car before Charlotte and ran in the top 20 – on the lead lap – until his problems approaching the 3/4 mark of the race.
"You know how tough Charlotte is?" said his crew chief, Rick Ren. "He ran 15th on the lead lap in the Trucks, and we had a 15th-place car today – the finish doesn't show it, but that's how well he ran. I think he did a great job."
Ren said he was impressed with Raikkonen's car control, ability on restarts and overall effort. The driver picked up many of the NASCAR nuances during his short stay.
"It takes quite a few races to learn the terminology of a driver you can talk to and who's been doing this a long time," he said. "For having never even driven one of these things? He did a great job. He switched up his terminology to try to talk to me so I could understand him. He definitely put in a good effort."
Because of his heavy Finnish accent and unfamiliarity with the language of NASCAR, Raikkonen's radio chatter made for some entertaining listening.
"I don't understand how this car can be so hot," he said at one point. "My ass is even burning in here."
When his feet felt burned, he suggested the crew pour water on the floor – which wouldn't have been a good idea – and dryly joked he should perhaps drive with his foot out the window.
He didn't seem to like too much noise on the team radio, however. Raikkonen scolded Ren for shouting at a crew member ("Why are you shouting on the fucking radio?" he said) and his spotter for discussing an on-track incident with Ren ("Don't talk about other things on the radio," he said).
Raikkonen also made constant references to his drink bottle, which he emptied faster than the crew could refill it.
"I am out of the drink again," he said as the race dragged on. "It's so small. Make sure it's completely full, because it is too small."
Another time, he made his point much clearer: "I need my drinking bottle. HEY! Give me my drinking bottle!!"
The whole experience was interesting for not only Raikkonen, but NASCAR. Car owner Joe Nemechek (the car was built by Kyle Busch Motorsports but technically owned by Nemechek) even asked to pose for a picture with Raikkonen before the race.
Hopefully, for the sake of entertainment, the Iceman will cometh to NASCAR again.
David Reutimann would like nothing more than to prove his rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 victory in 2009 wasn't a fluke.
The Michael Waltrip Racing driver appears to have a machine capable of helping him accomplish just that, as he led final practice for the Coke 600 on Saturday afternoon with a speed of 184.483 mph.
Marcos Ambrose was second-fastest (184.143 mph), followed by the hobbled Paul Menard – who is on crutches after cutting the bottom of his foot on a boat dock – Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton.
Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and David Ragan rounded out the top 10 in Happy Hour, which was the final chance for Sprint Cup Series teams to find areas to improve on their cars before Sunday's marathon race.
Other notable drivers included Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), Carl Edwards (13th), Tony Stewart (17th) and Jeff Gordon (31st). Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski was 22nd.
Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter Brad Keselowski has no intention of struggling for very long in the Sprint Cup Series.
"I'd rather work at McDonald's than run 40th in Cup," he said "I hate it. I can't stand it. You want to know what my nightmare is? It's waking up, having a dream of pulling in the garage area, looking up at the scoreboard and seeing my car on the right side of the board (with the backmarkers)."
Clearly, Keselowski has every intention of making the most of his No. 1 starting spot in the lineup for NASCAR's longest race on Sunday evening.
Keselowski said his team has been making gains in the past few weeks that are noticeable to him but may have not shown up in the stats.
"As race car drivers, we go off the feel of our ass," he said. "The feel of my ass is that the cars are getting better every week and they're turning just a little bit better, the horsepower is getting a little bit better. I think that we have more in store."
So what have some of those improvements been? For one thing, Keselowski said the departure of Tom German – Penske's head of engineering – has "opened doors that would have never opened before."
Those changes have included allowing crew chief Paul Wolfe and car chief Jerry Kelley to make more hands-on adjustments to the car.
"It's not some amazing new muffler bearing, it's small little things," Keselowski said. "It's putting the car together right and having the ability to do that without jumping over 20 to 30 hurdles. That's what this sport is about. It's about small details and we're getting the details a little bit better each week with the 2 team."
And glimmers of hope like the pole provided Keselowski with some inspiration – which he said was necessary sometimes to shake off the doldrums that a slump brings.
"It's that drive that keeps you going," he said. "You need moments of inspiration or motivation for no other reason to kind of shut up that devil on your shoulder that's saying, ‘I need to do something else.' That's the little cancer growing on your shoulder."
The images of the deadly tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo. last week were tough for anyone to see, but especially tough for Joplin native Jamie McMurray. Initially dismissing the tornado by thinking Joplin has a tornado every year, McMurray was amazed at the destruction he saw.
"When you see the pictures, it just makes it more real," McMurray said. "It's incredible to see the damage the tornado did."
McMurray said he received texts and calls from fellow drivers, and all of his sponsors reached out asking how they could help his hometown cope with the disaster. Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops was one of the first to call and Irwin Tools – a former sponsor when McMurray was at Roush Fenway Racing – sent 250 pairs of gloves to help with the search.
Among the devastation was McMurray's high school and childhood home.
"The high school that was destroyed is the high school I attended," McMurray said. "They showed pictures of the neighborhood I grew up in, and it was gone. I had a friend text me pictures of the house I grew up in; he said the only part of the house that was left was the address on the front wall. When you look at pictures of the house, there is no background. It's hard to figure what you are looking at."
While his family has relocated to North Carolina, McMurray continues to call Joplin home and has many friends in the area.
"Joplin is home to me...just the way it was," he said. "For a long time, it will be about Joplin."
As the saying goes, "Fast cars go fast." And Brad Keselowski apparently has a very fast car for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Keselowski recited that phrase after winning the pole for the Coke 600 on Thursday night, which marked the second pole of his Sprint Cup Series career.
The Penske Racing driver, whose team has struggled to find speed at points this season, will lead the field to the green flag to start NASCAR's longest race. It was the second pole of Keselowski's career.
"Fast cars go fast, and this team is really making a lot of progress," Keselowski said. "Every week, we just keep ticking away. A little bit here, a little bit there."
AJ Allmendinger will join Keselowski on the front row, followed by All-Star Race winner Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton.
Jimmie Johnson, 2009 Coke 600 winner David Reutimann, David Ragan, first-time starter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top 10.
The night qualifying session had a bit of excitement. While go-or-go-home driver Andy Lally was attempting to make the race, he went into a long, smoky drift. Amazingly, he kept it off the wall – but his lap wasn't good enough to qualify for the race.
Four other cars shared Lally's fate. Drivers who failed to qualify included Lally, T.J. Bell, Scott Wimmer, Tony Raines and Scott Riggs.
Here is the starting lineup for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600:
The following is the unedited transcript of Tony Stewart's media availability on Thursday, as released by Chevrolet:
ARE YOU GOING TO BE AT SPEED STREET TOMORROW NIGHT?
WHAT'S PLAYING? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO BE DOING?
"I have no idea. I'll know when I get there."
HAVE YOU BEEN A PART OF THAT IN THE PAST? WHAT SORT OF EXPERIENCE HAS IT BEEN?
"Yeah, but you've got to remember I'm more worried about trying to figure out what I'm doing in my race car right now. I'm worried about my race car. I'm not worried about all this other stuff. This is ‘Hell Week' being in Charlotte. We don't do anything but work all week for two-and-a-half weeks. So, it's non-stop. We're just happy when we can be at the track and can finally get a break."
MATT KENSETH SAID 600 MILES IS REALLY LONG WHEN YOU'RE CAR IS NOT DOING WHAT YOU WANT IT TO
"500 miles is a long time when your car's not right. I'm not sure that we're practicing in the heat of the day here for qualifying tonight; so that's why we've got Saturday to work on the race stuff."
WITH THIS HEAT, IS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN USE FROM LAST WEEK THAT YOU'RE GOING TO BRING OVER?
"Look in your archives. Every year everybody tells you ‘Yes' on that. That's what everybody says. That's what everybody said last week. It's the same answer this week. Log this answer for the rest of my life that yes, everything that we learned last week we will use toward this week for the rest of my life. That's what we'll do."
"That's a given. Everybody is going to do that. Everybody is going to look off their notes last week because we're running the same track two weeks in a row. And they're both ending at night. So it's as consistent as you can get. I know you have to ask but I have to answer it that way because I get tired of answering the same thing every May the same question."
HOW IS KANSAS DIFFERENT FROM THIS TRACK IN YOUR APPROACH?
"It's shaped different (laughs); it's a whole different race track. Even the tracks that are shaped the same as Charlotte race differently. I mean Atlanta races different, Texas races different; and Kansas is totally shaped different than here. So it's a whole different place."
I KNOW IT'S SHAPED DIFFERENT, BUT HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FOR YOU? WHAT DO YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
"The handling characteristics are different. Man, I don't even know what kind of answer you want for that because it's kind of far out there. I don't even know when Kansas is compared to now."
IT'S NEXT WEEK
"Okay, I don't even know. Like I say, we're worried about this week and not what we're doing next week at Kansas or the week after that wherever we're at then. We've got 600 miles we're trying to work on this week."
HOW IS YOUR CAR?
"I think it's pretty good. I'm pretty happy with the balance so far in race trim. It's just staying focused on what we're doing. There have been so many distractions in the last week and a half, and everybody wants to talk about Kansas or something else that doesn't pertain to anything that we're doing right now, that it's hard to focus on it."
WITH YOUR OWNER'S HAT ON, CAN I ASK YOU ABOUT DANICA PATRICK?
"You can't ask me anything about Danica. It doesn't have anything to do with what I'm doing here today. If you have something to ask me about what we're doing here today, feel free. And I'll stay here as long as you want. Do you have anything else?"
Kyle Busch's speeding ticket has been the hot topic of the day Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Most drivers that came into the media center were asked what they thought of their fellow driver's extreme speeds away from the race track.
Many dodged the question, saying it was none of their business, but others let their voices be heard.
Here is what they had to say:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Sometimes you go a little fast, even away from the race track I guess. I’ve been guilty of the same thing myself, just been lucky enough not to get caught.
“I don’t really know if I got that fast. I didn’t know if we had enough straight road in North Carolina to get going that quick, but apparently there is a piece somewhere."
Kevin Harvick: “I think some people are their own worst enemy when it comes to being responsible as a person or as a business person or anything that comes with life’s responsibilities.
"For me, they won’t even let me drive down the highway because I drive five miles per hour over the speed limit and it tends to take us a lot longer to get to places. Since I’ve been about 16 or 17 years old, I haven’t been into really driving fast down the highway or anything reckless on the road. It’s not really the place to do that.
"I don’t really know how to answer that to be honest with you, because I’ve never driven a vehicle 120 plus down the highway. It could put a lot of people in a bad situation.”
Kurt Busch: “Are drivers weighing in or are they being forced to give their opinion? Talking with Kyle about it, I feel like he definitely understands the mistake that he made and that speed is supposed to be saved for here at the race track and putting on a good show.
"All of us drivers have a responsibility as being role models to what we can teach our youth on the roadways. There are posted speed limits and rules and laws; that’s what we have to do. Whatever comes of it, he has his court date and things will be ironed out. He’ll learn from the situation and be a better person from it. I think I was 26 years old when I got put through my big episode and it definitely changes the way that you look at things. There’s a responsibility that all of us have.”
Jimmie Johnson: “I think consistency is the key in whatever other issues that have taken place off the track. There should be a precedent there and that’s how they engage and interact. I don’t know how to really form an opinion on that. You’ve got to get into the fine print of the rule book.
"I think I’m learning a little bit through this as well. You don’t need a valid driver’s license to compete, is that correct? It’s in there and when you have leagues and players unions and things there are penalties that are usually passed along and make sense because you are part of a league, we’re not in that situation. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer and I’m kind of watching and learning as we go here just to see what it is.”
Ryan Newman: “If you don’t have to have a driver’s license to compete in the series, then what happens on the street has no affect as to what happens on the race track in my opinion. That’s what you hold a driver’s license for. If he’s charged criminally, then that’s a different situation, right? Versus being charged with a driver-related issue.
"My point about the license part of it is if you don’t have to have a driver’s license to compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, then, no matter what, it’s DMV (Department of Motor Vehicle) related in my opinion. If he would have clobbered a mail box at 128, then that is a federal situation.
"There are different ways of looking at it is my point. If something was to happen to it…it is just a private car incident that has no affect on his eligibility to drive a Sprint Cup car or a Nationwide car. But, to me, it is a very gray area in reference to the police officer and what he did as to how he got away as clean as he did. I think that is probably your judgment question. If it was you running 128 in a 45, would he have treated you the same way? Every officer has to answer that question a different way depending on who he is dealing with.
“I don’t think NASCAR can do anything because they don’t require a driver’s license...(128 is) just what they clocked him at, he could have been going faster.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he still doesn't know what Danica Patrick's NASCAR plans may be next year – nor does he feel he should have an opinion on the matter.
"I think she wants to have more success and doing it (full) time would be a good move," he said. "She just has to choose what she wants to do. What is right for her. What she thinks she will be happy doing. Just make the right choice for herself, that is what is important."
Earnhardt Jr. said Patrick has been racing enough to know whether she's ready to leave the IndyCar Series and make the commitment to NASCAR.
"It is really up to her," he said. "It is really not up to anybody else. My opinion on that deal really doesn't matter. She is the one who knows the truth and she'll make the decision I think she needs to make and that will be that."
On another topic, Earnhardt Jr. was asked about Kyle Busch's 128 mph speeding ticket – and said he's driven well over the speed limit at times, too.
"Sometimes you go a little fast, even away from the racetrack, I guess," he said. "I've been guilty of the same thing myself just been lucky enough not to get caught."
But perhaps Earnhardt Jr. didn't quite reach the same speeds that Busch did on Tuesday.
"I don't really know if I got that fast," he said. "I didn't know if we had enough straight road in North Carolina to get going that quick, but, apparently there is a piece somewhere."
Kurt Busch verbally abuses his team on the radio like no other driver, knowing full well that the radio is a communication system open for anyone with a scanner or NASCAR.com TrackPass subscription to hear.
Busch has dealt with the issue of losing his temper on the team radio – which he sometimes does at shocking levels – for years, berating his team on numerous occasions while the public listens in.
Yet when Busch vowed Thursday to tone down his vitriolic radio rants, he cited negative media attention as his reasoning.
"I always laugh and sit there and listen to you guys contradict yourselves, saying you want us to be more colorful," he said. "But also what you want to do to a driver is just thrash him when he shows personality. That's what I'm going through with this radio."
Upon hearing Busch's comments, a handful of fans immediately piled on and said reporters should stop making him look bad.
But if Busch is perceived negatively for his radio chatter, he needs to look no further than a mirror for someone to blame.
Busch has long lamented what he calls the "People magazine" culture of the NASCAR media. He makes no secret of his distaste for the he-said, she-said nature of the reporting when it comes to dealing with on-track incidents.
NASCAR, though, is a sport built on the drivers' personalities. Many fans pick their favorites based on personality over performance, and the media often covers the races accordingly. It's as much about the people in the cars as the cars themselves.
So when reporters – all of whom have scanners and publicize the race chatter during the events – hear a driver like Busch going ballistic inside the car, are they supposed to ignore it?
I'd sympathize with Busch's gripes a bit more if the media were digging up dirt on his personal life – an area that doesn't necessarily affect the competition. But this reporting is directly related to what's happening on the track; every fan can hear what he's saying to the team.
The validity of the charge that the media pleads for drivers to not be vanilla and then "thrashes" the ones that show personality depends on your view of what "personality" entails.
If "showing personality" means angrily screaming at crewmen on the team radio, then yes, it's likely the media does portray that in a poor light. But it's very possible to "show personality" without being a jerk.
So if a person chooses to act like a jerk, don't shoot the messengers who report it.
Kyle Busch repeatedly apologized for his "lack of judgment" in driving 128 mph in a 45 mph speed zone this week, telling reporters Thursday that it will never happen again.
"I'm certainly sorry that it happened," he said. "All I can do is apologize to the public, my friends, my fans and my sponsors. I'll look at this experience as a learning experience and move forward."
Busch was driving a 2012 Lexus LFA on loan to him from the manufacturer, and apparently got carried away on his joyride. He offered no explanation for his actions, other than to say it wasn't a good move.
In regard to saying, "It's just a toy" to the officer who cited him, Busch said Friday that the car "wasn't a toy – it's a high performance vehicle."
"It should be driven with caution," Busch said. "Obviously I didn't have caution and I had a lack of judgment. There's probably reason why on the TV commercials that they always show at the bottom, 'Professional driver, closed course.' Mine was not that. Again, I apologize sincerely. All I can do is make sure it doesn't happen again."
Joe Gibbs, Busch's car owner, said the Joe Gibbs Racing team was working through the potential penalty scenarios for Busch. The organization will not suspend Busch, Gibbs said, but will take some yet-to-be-determined actions that could include a fine or community service.
"It's a serious issue," Gibbs said. "That's an important statement for us: This is serious. ... We want to go through this the right way. There's a lot to consider. We're going to step through it and try to do the right thing."
Busch fielded a question about no one being injured by his actions and responded, "There's ifs ands or buts to a lot of things in life."
"Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it doesn't any make kind of excuse for what happened, for my lack of judgment, for what I did," he said.
And to those who say he should have been arrested or had his license pulled on the spot?
"I'll leave that to the court system," he said. "We'll go through that as best as we can handle it and as best the authorities try to handle it. It's not my place to decide what does or doesn't happen."
Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne will make his NASCAR return next weekend, but he still doesn't know the cause of a mysterious illness that has kept him out of competition for more than a month.
Bayne will drive the Nationwide Series at Chicagoland Speedway before returning to the Sprint Cup Series the following week at Michigan International Speedway, and met with the media on Thursday for the first time since being hospitalized.
Doctors still do not know what caused Bayne's symptoms of double-vision and inflammation, even after running numerous tests, including MRIs and spinal taps.
"Their biggest hope is that it was an isolated event and it was temporary and that's it's gone now," Bayne said. "The diagnosis, I don't have it yet. I don't know."
One thing Bayne pointed to as a possible cause was the whirlwind time that followed the Daytona 500 wearing down his immune system. Surprising many with his dramatic win in the season’s opening race, Bayne was shuffled around the country to do a variety of interviews and other media event and the non-stop action eventually wore down on the 20-year-old driver.
Even though doctors have not been able to pinpoint the cause for Bayne’s symptoms, they were able to rule out a number of causes, including cancer.
“It is not anything terminal or anything like that,” Bayne said. “I heard somebody say cancer and leukemia and those things but that is not even a word that I heard in the hospital. That was not even an option. They have ruled out all those things.
“I am hoping it was a temporary inflammation that caused that and it has been going away, as they said from day one that it should be like a four-week deal and go away. That is pretty much what happened.”
With such a cloud of mystery surrounding the unknown illness, Bayne says the experience was "a real eye opener" of how supportive everyone in the NASCAR garage has been.
Carl Edwards flew to the Mayo Clinic with to entertain him with a guitar, Tony Stewart loaned the Bayne family a private jet to get back and forth from Minnesota and Michael McDowell spent five days at the hospital with his close friend.
Although all of his symptoms have subsided, Bayne chose to sit out last weekend's All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and this weekend Roush Fenway Racing officials decided to hold Bayne's return another week to ensure he was 100 percent.
"Missing the All-Star kind of crushed me, but we're back now and we're ready to go and as ready as ever," Bayne said.
"We recognize when the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 misses a number of races with a mysterious illness that it is newsworthy," Newmark said. "We also recognize that this garage is a small community and there were rumors running rampant about all sorts of sinister things that were going on."
Poised as the ‘next best thing’ following his historic win, Bayne said he never thought ‘Why me?’ during his time away from the car.
“I think this year is just helping me figure out what I’m made of," he said. "If you can handle the biggest up you can have and the farthest bottom you can have, the rest of it should be easy from here.
"I’m thankful for the ups and the downs and everything to find out what I’m made of and to find out who is really there to support me. Through this I’ve found a lot of supporters that I was either unsure of or I didn’t even know where there.”
Former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen said he will indeed race in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Charlotte Motor Speedway – and left the door open for a Sprint Cup start at Sonoma next month.
Raikkonen, the "Ice Man" whose cool demeanor matches his nickname, said he's still undecided on his NASCAR future after making one Truck Series start last week and the impending Nationwide start for NEMCO Motorsports on Saturday.
Wearing a backwards Red Bull hat, a black Perky Jerky T-shirt and shorts, Raikkonen acknowledged he's thinking about running a road-course race in the Cup Series – but hasn't decided for sure.
"It would be nice to go and do (Sonoma), but I don't know if it's going to happen or not," he said. "We'll see what happens this weekend. I have to go back and do my Rally (car) stuff and we'll see."
Raikkonen said he's yet to drive a Nationwide car – today is the first time – but feels somewhat confident because "at least I know the circuit and how the weekend goes."
In talking with other drivers, he said, he was told there was "not an awful difference" between Trucks and Nationwide cars.
He does have 20 laps of experience in a Cup car – but not on an oval.
Raikkonen said his test last week – driving a Robby Gordon Motorsports car at the Virginia International Raceway road course – wasn't all that helpful. Before he got a chance to run many laps, he took one turn too wide and tried to run through the grass.
"I went out and just ran a bit wide and I decided to go in the grass, but unfortunately there was a big hole in the grass and it destroyed the front a bit," he said.
Still, that wasn't enough to dissuade him from driving in Nationwide this weekend after reports said he was unsure about it earlier in the week.
"The Nationwide, we are here, so what's the most easiest thing to get more experience?" he said. "It was the easiest thing for me to do."
Excited. Happy. A bit nervous. Conflicted.
Those are some of the emotions Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is experiencing this weekend as he prepares to make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut in the Coca-Cola 600.
The past year has been a roller coaster for Stenhouse. After a series of crashes left his future in doubt a year ago, Roush Fenway Racing stuck with the young driver and decided to keep giving him more chances in the Nationwide Series.
Stenhouse rewarded the team's faith in him, turning his career around and winning last week's Nationwide race at Iowa.
Now, he'll make his Cup debut in NASCAR's longest race, the marathon Coke 600.
But Stenhouse can't celebrate the opportunity without some mixed feelings. After all, his seat in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford was available because one of his best friends, Trevor Bayne, is still being held out while recovering from a mysterious illness.
The two friends have spoken several times about the issue, and Bayne has been nothing but supportive, Stenhouse said. But Stenhouse is still cognizant of the emotions involved.
"You know, I was hoping he was going to be back," Stenhouse said. "I definitely, if anything, didn't want to be in his ride. We're such good friends. But he's been supportive of it, and that's definitely helped."
Stenhouse said the drivers talked about the differences between the Cup car and the Nationwide car – Stenhouse hasn't tested a Cup car much – and is a bit nervous about how the 600 will go.
It'll help that his good friend will be at the track.
"I think one of the key things we have going is Jack (Roush) is supportive of both of us," Stenhouse said. "Everyone at Roush Fenway, Ford Racing, the Wood Brothers – and Trevor – knows that's his seat.
"This is just one race. Even if he did win it, he would still be back in the car. It's nothing that's going to take his job away, and I think that's something he knows. And I know that. I'm glad that I wouldn't be able to take that from him, because I definitely wouldn't like to do that."
This weekend's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has a unique weekend schedule, as Sprint Cup Series qualifying and practice, as well as Nationwide Series practice begin on Thursday afternoon, and there is no track activity on Friday.
The action picks back up on Saturday morning when the Nationwide Series cars hit the track for qualifying before the final two practice sessions for the Sprint Cup Series, followed by the Top Gear 300.
Sunday afternoon will see a host of pre-race activities honoring the United States military, before the Coca-Cola 600 gets under way at 6:00 p.m.
2:00 p.m. - Nationwide Series Practice (1 Hour, 20 Minutes)
3:30 p.m. - Sprint Cup Series Practice (1 Hour, 30 Minutes)
5:10 p.m. - Nationwide Series Final Practice (1 Hour, 20 Minutes)
7:10 p.m. - Sprint Cup Series Qualifying (Two Laps)
No Track Activity
10:10 a.m. - Nationwide Series Qualifying (Two Laps)
11:30 a.m. - Sprint Cup Series Practice (1 Hour, 15 Minutes)
12:50 p.m. - Sprint Cup Series Final Practice (1 Hour)
2:30 p.m. - Nationwide Series Race (200 Laps, 300 Miles)
5:30 p.m. - Driver Introductons
6:00 p.m. - Sprint Cup Series Race (400 Laps, 600 Miles)
It's a funny thing about the Coca-Cola 600.
In an era where many are calling for shorter races to match our shorter attention spans, many of the 500-mile races at 1.5-mile tracks have stretches where they seem to be a bit, well, uneventful.
I'm often among those in the growing chorus who believe shorter races would help the entertainment value. But for some reason, I like the Coke 600 just how it is.
I think it's because the very nature of a 600-mile race indicates a marathon. It's not going to be some three-hour event. This is a test of endurance – both of man and machine – and pushes the limits of both.
As a viewer, it's a chance to sit back and relax while the drivers do all the work. Watching the 600 is an exercise in letting the action unfold while sitting back with a cold beverage, having the sounds of friends around you while someone tends the grill nearby.
With the Memorial Day holiday the day after the race, there's no rush for the viewer to get the 600 miles over with. And to me, that's the charm of the Coca-Cola 600.
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