The Coca-Cola 600 was a lot of things Sunday night, but it sure wasn’t boring.
It was chaotic and wild and scary, especially when Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford flipped end over end 4 1/2 times late in the race, winding up on its roof and hushing the crowd of close to 100,000. Buescher’s car eventually got flipped right side up by safety personnel and then he crawled out of it, shaken but unhurt. He called the accident “a little bit painful” on TV, although it looked death-defying.
That part we could have done without in a race that Denny Hamlin won under strange circumstances in a car that he thought would finish, at best, fourth. But in general, this was Charlotte Motor Speedway looking a lot like the dirt tracks that dot the Carolinas — the closest this 1.5-mile superspeedway has looked like to a red-clay bullring in a long time. And that was a good thing. This was a heck of a show.
Hamlin ended up winning the Coke 600 in a race by surviving a war of attrition. By the end, 17 of the 37 cars that had started the race were out, as one wreck after another decimated a field that was often three- and occasionally four-wide.
By mileage terms, it was the longest in NASCAR history, as the Coke 600 turned into the Coke 619.5 due to double overtime, which made the cars run 413 laps instead of the usual 400. In terms of time, it was also the second-longest Coke 600 of the modern era, going for 5 hours, 13 minutes and 8 seconds.
Hamlin started on the pole in his Toyota, but he was an afterthought for much of the race. “We weren’t very good all day,” Hamlin said afterward, “but we just got in the right place at the right time…. It wasn’t looking good for about 398 laps.”
It was Hamlin’s first-ever Coke 600 victory, as he held off Kyle Busch in the second overtime after the first one ended in yet another crash. “I’ve had 17 tries at it, and hadn’t won it until today,” Hamlin said. “It was a struggle most of the day, but we just stayed in it.”
Even before the halfway point, Fox Sports pointed out on the TV broadcast that of the 37 cars that began the race, 24 had already been involved in a wreck or a spin.
The race felt old-school in a number of ways. First of all, the Coke 600 crowd was enormous compared to what it looked like in past years (two of them impacted by COVID). Then there were the familiar and touching Memorial Day tributes to the military and to fallen soldiers, Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to be an American” and Lynyrd Skynyrd performing in a pre-race concert (of course, their encore was “Freebird.”)
Speed Street is an old-school idea, too, although this time instead of uptown Charlotte it was placed just outside the speedway and included a Ferris wheel, loads of virtual racing and some vintage racecars on display. Fans wandering the facility in the pre-race hours had more to do, and the idea of placing the “street” in the spot where the majority of race fans actually are made sense.
The race stood in stark contrast to the 2021 Coke 600, which was boring in numerous ways. Kyle Larson dominated that race, leading 327 of 400 laps and winning by 10 seconds. There were long green-flag runs with no passing at the front. And with only four caution flags the entire 2021 race — as compared to 18 on Sunday in a race that started at 6:25 p.m. and didn’t end until almost midnight — there weren’t a lot of chances for anyone to pass Larson, either.
This one was far different. Larson made headlines again, but for different reasons. His team was penalized three different times for pit road violations in the first half of the race. Larson crashed in practice, meaning he didn’t get to go through qualifying and started 36th. Part of his car briefly caught on fire. Larson said early in the race on the radio it felt like “the worst race of my life.”
Then, toward the end, it looked like Larson would win. But he was undone by a late crash, as was Austin Dillon, as was Chase Briscoe and as were a number of other drivers earlier who had a real shot at winning NASCAR’s longest race.
Instead, it was Hamlin, the 41-year-old veteran driver winning for Joe Gibbs Racing — this was Hamlin’s 48th career NASCAR Cup series victory — despite leading for only 15 of the race’s 413 laps.
“That was physical,” said Gibbs of the race, saying it reminded him of his old football coaching days. “There were people pounding on each other.”
The No. 17 car flipping through the air — we don’t need any more of that, although Hamlin pointed out that it looked worse than it was because drivers would much rather be flipping through the air, with the car dissipating energy, then hitting a wall head-on.
But the rest of it?
Despite some drivers’ complaints about the track’s surface of their car’s handling, it was a lot of fun.
This story was originally published May 30, 2022 12:24 AM.