Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: The Coca-Cola 600 Should Not Be Split Into 4 Quarters

The Coca-Cola 600 is the NASCAR Cup Series’ hallmark test of endurance and stamina.

So why is it split into four 100-lap stages with a halftime break as if it was a basketball or football game?

Much of the fun in the Coke 600s of yesteryear came from the long distance and the unpredictability it created for race strategy. Not knowing when the next caution would come out created suspense in that department, as the teams never knew if the race was due for a bunch of short runs interspersed with cautions, or if a long green flag run of more than 100 laps was on tap.

Having set cautions at laps 100, 200 and 300 has changed the game in that department. With a fuel window of just over 60 laps, every team makes one pit stop in the middle of the four segments plus an additional pit stop under the three stage breaks. There’s little variability involved, and one of the race’s former strengths has, for the most part, been eliminated under the current format.

Of course, the current format has been made a moot point with the Next Gen car. The 2022 600 featured 18 cautions, while last year’s running had 16. Both races combined for a runtime over 10 hours, and the longest green flag run between the two was only 49 laps. Charlotte Motor Speedway is also one of the tracks where the Next Gen has been a smashing success, so the frantic, close, side-by-side racing seen throughout the event has more than made up for the loss of strategy.

That reflects fan interest in the event, as Charlotte has gone from losing its second oval date in 2018 to the present day, when the 600 has once again become one of NASCAR’s hottest tickets. Now there are plenty of calls to bring that second oval date back.

The race is fantastic as it is, but adjusting the stage lengths so that the final segment is the longest would be great for both the strategy and the racing. My preference is to drop the third stage and have the race divided into segments of 80, 80 and 240 laps. It’s the longest race of the year; throw the teams a curveball with no guaranteed caution for nearly the final 400 miles.

If the race were to keep a third stage, I like the idea of 50-70-90-190. Enough variation to change the strategy for each stage and a long enough finish to really open up the playbook.

The Coke 600 with the Next Gen is already one of the best races on the entire Cup schedule; tweaking the stage lengths would turn a great race into an epic one.

2. What can Josh Bilicki and Brett Moffitt do with their Xfinity starts at JGR?

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series team has plenty of open seats, and a few more of them just got filled. On May 21, it was announced that Josh Bilicki, a 28-year-old Wisconsinite who’s a veteran of 97 Cup starts and 96 Xfinity starts, will be driving multiple races in JGR’s No. 19 car starting at Portland Raceway on June 1.

The rest of his schedule is unannounced, but my guess is that Bilicki will have more road courses in his lineup. He’s made a combined 53 starts on road courses between Cup and Xfinity, with a best Xfinity finish of eighth at Road America last year. Furthermore, his average finish on road courses is multiple spots better than his average finish on ovals in both series.

Driving primarily for underfunded teams throughout his career, this deal serves as a huge opportunity for Bilicki. It’s now up to him to make the most out of his appearances, starting at a track type at which he’s had most of his success.

Another driver joining Bilicki in the No. 19 is 2018 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Brett Moffitt, who will pilot the car in Xfinity’s return to Iowa Speedway.

See also
Brett Moffitt Joining JGR at Iowa

After starting 2024 without a ride despite a Truck win at Talladega Superspeedway last year, Moffitt has now joined Toyota and TRICON Garage’s Truck lineup for a handful of starts this season. Iowa has been one of his best tracks in the past, as he scored a dominant win at the 7/8-mile oval in 2018 and scored another win in 2019 after Ross Chastain’s truck failed post-race inspection.

The Iowa native, who grew up less than an hour drive from the track and has a best finish of second in 117 Xfinity starts, has a golden opportunity to score his first win in the series. And if his past results are any indication, he’ll be tough to beat.

3. Delaying the start of the Coke 600?

The start time of last Sunday’s (May 19) All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway was delayed approximately 15 minutes to aid Kyle Larson’s return to the track after qualifying fifth for the 108th Indianapolis 500 (he ultimately arrived on time, but the gesture didn’t hurt).

See also
Stat Sheet: A History of Double Duty

Flash forward with Memorial Day Sunday (May 26) just three days away, and there’s a common nuisance to racing that might rear its ugly head at the most inopportune time imaginable: rain.

The current forecast for Indianapolis calls for a substantial chance of rain Sunday afternoon, which would impact Larson’s return to Charlotte if the race incurs a delay. At the same time, there’s a possibility (albeit a far less likely one) that rain may interfere in the Charlotte area later that day.

NASCAR’s Elton Sawyer said it would work with Larson and Hendrick Motorsports to make sure that Larson would be back in time for the start of the 600 “within reason.”

The INDYCAR and NASCAR worlds will be seeing a feat that hasn’t attempted in more than a decade, but at the same time, Charlotte and its tens of thousands of fans in attendance can’t wait hours if Larson is unable to get back. If the start has to be pushed back 30 or so minutes, absolutely fair game. So many people will be tuning in to both races to see him.

And yes, weather has interfered with double duty before. The 2000 Coke 600 started without Robby Gordon after he stayed at Indy during a rain delay to compete the 500. Four years later, Gordon had to bail to Charlotte in 2004 after the 500 was rain delayed after less than 30 laps were put on the board.

As long as it’s not an excessive amount of time, NASCAR is right to be accommodating. But the first hope is that the weather — as unlikely it may be — will stay away and allow Larson to complete all 1,100 miles.

4. Are tests giving selected teams too much of an advantage?

For the past few years, scheduled test sessions with random draws per manufacturer are just about the only way for teams to hit the track and run laps without a simulator.

Why is this notable? Because for a tire test at North Wilkesboro in March, William Byron, Ty Gibbs and Joey Logano were the drivers selected to participate. Byron finished 18 laps down after a problem in the All-Star Race, but Gibbs led all 100 laps of the All-Star Open and Logano paced 199 of the 200 circuits in the main event. Notably, Logano got more than 800 laps of testing around the newly paved surface for the 5/8-mile oval.

There was also a test at Phoenix Raceway following the conclusion of the 2023 season to test the aero package used for short tracks in 2024. Six drivers (two from each manufacturer) participated: Larson, Chris Buescher, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Corey LaJoie.

Bell won the race at Phoenix in March in what was a race-long ass kicking by Toyota, while Buescher finished right behind in second.

In just two weeks’ time, the Cup Series returns to Sonoma Raceway, where Martin Truex Jr., Ross Chastain and Josh Berry tested in March after the track was repaved in the offseason. Is that a good omen for them next month?

My original question was whether the tests are unfair, and for that, I will say no. There was a two-day test at Richmond Raceway last August, and none of the six drivers that participated were a factor for the win when the series returned to the track in March. There was also a test at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in April last year, and once again, the three drivers were not a factor for the win.

Even when looking at the offseason test at Phoenix, Larson — who scored two top-five finishes at the track in 2023 — was a surprising no-show at the track this spring, with an uncharacteristic 14th-place showing.

And if being selected for these tests did provide an unfair advantage, teams and drivers that weren’t selected would be the first to jump on it.

About the author

Thanksgiving Photo

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch and is a three-year veteran of the site. His weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” He also writes commentary, contributes to podcasts, edits articles and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage.

Can find on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Steve

I’m sure Nascar will give Larson a waiver for the playoffs if he were to miss the 600 due to weather, since they hand those out like candy anyway.

If there is a rain delay at Indy, it could get a bit hairy for him if its not delayed till the next day. So what would he do? Not race and head back to Charlotte or would he try and get the aforementioned waiver and finish Indy, then head to Charlotte when the race is done to finish the 600?

Pretty interesting scenario to watch on Sunday.

Last edited 23 days ago by Steve
Kevin in SoCal

Does he have backup drivers for each race? I havent seen it mentioned who.

Mike

Isnt the stage breaks for the network to show commercials so fans can se more of the race commercial free. Lol. Hows that working. I havent noticed a difference.

DoninAjax

You mean the networks have their regular commercials AND the TV time-outs? Who woulda thunk that would happen? Besides everybody!

Echo

4 stages. Phelps would like to thank Ben Kennedy for coming up with the idea. Makes $ents to Nascar.

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