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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
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