Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: 1st-Time Winners in the Coca-Cola 600

The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the longest race of the NASCAR Cup Series season, has crowned seven first-time winners since the first running in 1960.

The race, no matter the era, tends to throw some nice surprises in the form of late-race pit stop strategy or by being in position for the win in the final laps.

Evolving from a daytime race from 1960 to a primetime event 33 years later, it has been a test of endurance, wits and resilience for any driver and team seeking to conquer one of the crown jewel stock car races of the year.

Drivers like Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe, Matt DiBenedetto, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Preece, Anthony Alfredo and Ross Chastain hope to score their first Cup win in Sunday’s (May 30) Coke 600. If any of these seven competitive racers makes their way into Charlotte’s victory lane on Sunday night, they can add to the list of first-time winners in the Coca-Cola 600.

David Pearson

The legend of David Pearson kicked off in the 1961 edition of the 600 when it was known as the World 600. Driving for car owner John Masoni’s No. 3 Pontiac team, the Spartanburg, S.C., racer started from the third spot. taking the lead from Joe Weatherly on lap two. Pearson did not showcase his dominant ways in the race until lap 272, when he passed Richard Petty for the lead.

From there, Pearson was untouchable and did not relinquish the No. 1 spot. Pearson claimed his first Cup win by a margin of two laps over Fireball Roberts, and Rex White, Ned Jarrett and Jim Paschal rounded out the top five but three laps behind Pearson.

Jeff Gordon

After a sparkling rookie campaign in 1993, Jeff Gordon and his No. 24 team approached the Coca-Cola 600 looking to snap a six-race skid after placing 15th or worse prior to race 11 of the 1994 Cup season. Gordon kicked off the 600 race weekend with his second Cup pole.

By lap 300, Gordon began to pounce, as he led for three laps before Rusty Wallace regained the lead. Wallace, who led for 187 laps, appeared to be the driver to beat at Charlotte. However, Gordon’s crew chief, Ray Evernham, opted to have his driver pit for right sides and fuel in the waning laps. When Wallace and other lead lap contenders pitted for four tires and fuel, Gordon and Evernham outfoxed their competition, as they won the first of 45 Cup races in their storied careers.

See also
Frontstretch 5: Other Noteworthy Team Sweeps in NASCAR Cup Races

Bobby Labonte

One year after Gordon’s maiden Cup win, Bobby Labonte sought his first premier series win with Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 team. Starting from the second spot, Labonte exercised patience when his challengers fell by the wayside. Gordon, who started from the pole for the second consecutive time in the 600, led 37 laps before bowing out of the race due to issues with the wheel hub.

Likewise, Ken Schrader, seeking his third career Cup win and first since Dover in 1991, dropped out of the race on lap 358 due to an engine failure. With formidable contenders out of the picture, Labonte led the final 43 laps to earn the first of his 21 Cup wins.

Matt Kenseth

Leading up to the 2000 Coca-Cola 600, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of the odds-on favorite following his win in the NASCAR All-Star Race a week prior. Starting from the pole, Earnhardt, in his rookie Cup season, seemed to duplicate his form from his win at Texas Motor Speedway, the seventh round of the 2000 season.

As Earnhardt dominated, a quiet but confident Matt Kenseth picked his way through the field after starting 21st. Kenseth, a rookie candidate like Earnhardt, had put in some workman efforts, with a 10th at Daytona International Speedway, sixth at Darlington Raceway and third at Auto Club Speedway.

When the race progressed to the final 35 laps, Earnhardt faded to fourth and Kenseth passed Labonte with 26 laps remaining, taking the first of his 39 career Cup wins in the process.

Casey Mears

Casey Mears’ only Cup glory came in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. Leading up to the 48th running of the race, the focus was on Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, Mears’ Hendrick Motorsports teammates. But Gordon was involved in a multi-car crash on the frontstretch on lap 62, and Johnson led for 83 laps before a pit stop on lap 390 relegated him to 10th.

Mears’ victory was not without some hard work, as he overcame a pit road speeding penalty, an alternator issue on lap 149, a replacement battery installed before the halfway point and a close call on lap 221 involving Carl Edwards and David Ragan.

In the final 20 laps, Mears and crew chief Darian Grubb parlayed a well-executed fuel mileage victory at Charlotte.

See also
The Frontstretch 5: Improbable Cup Finishes

David Reutimann

After rain postponed the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 to Memorial Day, pole sitter Ryan Newman led the opening two laps before Kyle Busch took his first of five stints at the front of the field. Busch, leading a race high 173 laps, appeared to be the driver to beat.

When rain showers resulted in the sixth caution period on lap 222, David Reutimann and crew chief Rodney Childers decided to stay out, gambling on the rain ending the 600 prematurely. The call proved quite fruitful, as Reutimann and Childers emerged victorious when the race was called on lap 227, or 259.5 miles from the scheduled 600-mile distance.

Austin Dillon

Despite leading two laps, Austin Dillon made it count when it truly mattered in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. Starting from the 22nd position, Dillon did not make his presence known until stage two, when he placed seventh, earning four stage points. Finishing 10th in stage three and earning a stage point, Dillon and crew chief Justin Alexander gambled on fuel mileage in stage four.

Following a caution period for Danica Patrick’s crash in turn 3, the race went caution free for the final 67 laps. When leader Johnson ran out of fuel with two laps remaining, Dillon pounced for the lead and victory. However, his attempt to do a victory slide on Charlotte’s grass was not as smooth as his No. 3 team’s stroke of genius.

About the author

Joining Frontstretch in 2021, Rob Tiongson is a motorsports journalist who has covered NASCAR since 2008. As one of the first and original Featured Columnists for Bleacher Report's NASCAR coverage from 2008 to '10, Rob established ThePodiumFinish.net (TPF) in 2010, his independent motorsports media outlet focused on providing "The Inside Line to Motorsports." Originally a solo endeavor, Rob manages a team of 13 columnists and photographers for TPF. Rob serves as the ARCA Editor for Frontstretch and looks to contribute features about ARCA, IndyCar, Formula 1, and NASCAR. Outside of the journalism world, Rob enjoys working out, debating the merits of what constitutes great music (anything from the 1950s-early 90's is played on his Spotify playlist) while adjusting to life as a Yankee (he's really a Boston Red Sox fan) in Texas.

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Trey B

Nice article. Brought back some memories. I saw all of these except for the great David Pearson’s victory. That was 6 years before I was born.

Carl D.

I too was there for three of these first-time wins. My brother and I had an infield space in turn two for years. After Gordon’s win, I remember he and then-wife Brook walked around the infield celebrating his win. The next year, I won about $200 in our race pool by picking winner Labonte. I was there for Kenseth’s win as well. I was also there for Dale Jr.’s All-Star win, albeit in the stands. That was the year the new walkway over the highway in front of the speedway collapsed, injuring many fans. Fortunately, I wasn’t one of them.

We hung a bid red sign in our infield space that said “Win or lose, we will booze”. Now at 62, I watch the races on my sofa, drinking iced tea and usually chowing down on chicken wings. I still have my memories of going to the races in Charlotte, just not the Monday morning hangovers.


David Reutimann didn’t win after 259.5 miles. That isn’t even half way. 227 laps is 390.5 miles, which is over half distance.


Oops. 340.5 miles.

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