CONCORD, N.C. – The demands for Sunday involve much more than making left-handed turns with cars buzzing by you at speeds more than 150 mph.
The Coca-Cola 600 is the NASCAR equivalent of a grinding marathon mixed in with a quirky stack of logistical obstacles. Expect blisters on the brain instead of the feet.
The race will stretch the patience and expertise of crew chiefs, who have to adjust to the dramatic effect of performance and handling in a race that starts in daylight shortly after 5 p.m. and ends about five hours later, long after darkness has enveloped Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
It will push the limits of pit crews, who will bounce over the wall more often than usual because of a NASCAR mandate requiring teams to use 14-gallon fuel tanks instead of the standard 22-gallon tanks.
And it will place inordinate demands of strength and stamina on drivers in a race that will last 600 miles and 400 laps.
“It’s going to be survival,” Jeff Gordon said before qualifying Thursday night. “You have to be smart, you have to be aggressive. You’ve probably going to be a lot less aggressive during the day than at the end. It’s going to be like two different races: a day race and a right race.
“If we ever needed an intermission in a race, it’s this one. Drop the green at 5:30 or whatever time this race starts, then when the sun goes down at 7:30 you stop the race and give us a 10-minute break to make adjustments to the car.”
That won’t be happening.
Everything will be on the fly.
Assuming that if the race is run without any cautions – likely impossible – drivers would have to make 12 pit stops for fuel alone.
“I’m still in question of why the small fuel cells,” said Scott Riggs, the top qualifier at 187.865 mph.
“It is going to be tough on all the guys with all the pit stops we’re going to be making. It’s going to give everybody a lot more opportunities to make mistakes over the course of the evening.
“Six-hundred miles is a long way, and 400 laps will be a lot of opportunities to make those mistakes.”
A slicker compound on the newly surfaced track is the impetus for the switch; NASCAR officials were concerned that excessive tire wear between fuel stops could cause problems on Lowe’s 1.5-mile superspeedway.
The cars will run on harder Goodyear tires designed for the newer surface.
The repaving project was necessary because of a previous grinding process that failed to smooth out the bumps and caused tires to pop at an October race here last season. The new tires are outside the comfort zone of many drivers, and their concerns came to fruition last weekend when the harder tire was deemed the culprit of a crash that took out eight cars in the All-Star Challenge.
The echoes of discontent in the garage is strong, and should Sunday’s race be cluttered by crashes and cars that don’t handle well, Goodyear officials are going to be hard-pressed to appease what will be an angry group of drivers.
“There’s not a lot of grip with this hard tire on this race surface,” Kasey Kahne said. “We’re doing all we can to get these cars around it.”
Assuming caution flags don’t flutter incessantly, other problems loom in terms of physical attrition. The majority of NASCAR drivers are in excellent shape to handle the strain of a lengthy race, but concerns remain about dehydration and exhaustion.
“It’s hard on you,” said Jeremy Mayfield, who will start alongside Dodge teammate Riggs on the front row. “Just the heat, mainly the heat. You lose 5 or 10 pounds, and I’m sure it’s not good for you. You’ve got to stay hydrated. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
One final challenge is worth noting: Jimmie Johnson, who runs under the Lowe’s banner for Hendrick Motorsports and has taken the home-field advantage to a ridiculous extreme.
Johnson has seven victories in the past 10 races here and is going for his fourth consecutive Coca-Cola triumph.
“Once the sun goes down and the grip is in the race track, we end up working our way to the front,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure it is the right line when the sun is out, but at night time, when the checkered flag is just around the corner, we always seem to come alive.”