NASCAR Cup Series
A Lot Happened at the End of the Coca Cola 600
May 30, 2022
It’s the smallest of sample sizes but maybe it’s time to bring the All-Star Race back home to Charlotte Motor Speedway after the Coca Cola 600 on Sunday night.
Sure, this idea about moving the summer exhibition to various short tracks still has a lot of appeal, but if NASCAR’s longest race is an indicator of the future competition product at Charlotte, you can go ahead and take the ROVAL off the schedule too.
The Coke 600 was that compelling.
Sure, it was a bit of a s—t show not unlike an occasional southern Super Late Model race these days, but it was a far cry from the procedural one-sided beat downs that had become the norm at Charlotte each May over the past six seasons or so regardless of rule package experiments.
There were lead changes aplenty over 600 miles, and so much action that it never really felt like the longest race in sanctioning body history at 619 miles in FIVE HOURS, 13 MINUTES AND EIGHT SECONDS. That length of race doesn’t even include the red flags by the way.
Denny Hamlin ultimately beat teammate Kyle Busch in second overtime, but only after the leaders repeatedly crashed each other in the second half.
"Everyone in front of me crashed, didn't you see it," Busch said when asked how he got up there after a challenging race before that point.
But seriously, the outcome was frequently in doubt and Cup Series drivers arguably drove over their head in the pursuit of a crown jewel to the delight of a virtually sold out crowd in NASCAR’s home market.
The industry really needed something like Sunday for a lot of reasons.
The All-Star Race left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouths that the Coca Cola 600 was the perfect palate cleanser. The first two intermediate length track races at Las Vegas and Kansas were a welcome development after three years of chasing the low horsepower, high downforce rules package, but Texas felt like a relapse.
As teams began to maximize the performance of their spec cars this season, qualifying speeds started tightening from top to bottom, making the ability to pass even more of a struggle independent of dirty air and turbulence.
After all, if everyone is going the same speeds, how do you complete a pass?
The Next Gen car, which was designed to be a drafting car in the spirit of the 550 rules package before an off-season change of direction, is still too aero sensitive with its underbody, rear diffuser and inherent drag.
It’s a work in progress the same way the Car of Tomorrow started with a wing and evolved over time.
"The car has less side force and less general downforce," Hamlin said after the race. "In our old car you could kind of hang out. The right side was a billboard, it was flat, so it caught air. Anytime you stick your hand out of the window, you could feel it.
"This one is all rounded. The moment it gets sideways, it just spins out. You don't have as much aerodynamics that keeps the car planted to the track."
Short track and flat tracks need a lot of work, but that will come later.
With all of that said, the car is directionally sound after its first four races on true intermediate length tracks. The downforce reduction has given Goodyear more flexibility to create tire compounds that lay down rubber while also falling off over the course of a run.
The cars are difficult to drive, in part by design and in part of a steering system that isn’t entirely developed. The downforce reduction is just enough to sometimes overcome the turbulence of a leading car, but a driver really has to work at it.
Either that or two cars have to have different setups that a leading car begins failing back to the trailing car as was the case late on Sunday when Larson began to fade and set up their race altering duel and incident.
The resin applied by NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports kept the track wide and gave drivers multiple lanes to make downforce and complete passes. It took 17 years, but Charlotte Motor Speedway’s surface has finally started to show signs of maturation.
Hopefully the amount of time it took to get to this sweet spot means its here to stay for a while. And hopefully the continued development of the Next Gen doesn't come at the expense of the status quo.
"I’ve only run one race here in the past in the Cup car, but, to me, that was the most fun Charlotte race I’ve ever ran," Briscoe said. "The racetrack was awesome. You could run the fence. You could run the middle. You could run the bottom. You could throw sliders.
"This car, it seems like, the long run and short run cars we have a little bit more of that where in the past it seemed like we kind of got single-filed out. It was a lot of fun. I’d do another 600 miles for sure."
Most importantly, I don’t think a lot of fans would object to another 600 miles of that, not that these extra long races should become the norm again.
In recent years, fans were more likely to be eliminated from the Coca-Cola 600 before cars and drivers were, but that narrative was flipped upside down on Sunday.
This isn’t a Charlotte or intermediate trend either.
Cautions and restarts are up across the board this season with a car that is more sensitive to spins or susceptible to tire failures if crew chiefs push too hard over air pressure, shock or camber set-ups. If this can somehow become the new normal, you almost have to start wondering if stage breaks are still necessary.
After all, the only reason stage breaks exist were to legitimize debris cautions and generate restarts. Paying championship points were the only way to justify them.
NASCAR races don’t need to be a cluster you know what with dozens of crashes to be entertaining, and not every entertaining race this year has been a crashfest. Looking at you, Richmond. But for far too long, cars were way too planted and there wasn’t enough attrition to make the Coca-Cola 600 feel anything other than archaic.
That the Next Gen has performed so well at every intermediate not named Texas thus far provides two conclusions:
It’s all the more reason to give Texas a total makeover and maybe take its All-Star Race back home to Charlotte.