CONCORD — The Coca-Cola 600 -- NASCAR's longest race, which will be run for the 50th time today at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- isn't much different than any other 400- or 500-miler anymore.
No longer are the early stages of the 400-lap race treated as so many parade laps. Cars are too fast these days, drivers too talented and the stakes too high.
"Used to be, it seemed like [there was] a period where you could sort of ride," said driver Matt Kenseth, who starts 30th today in his No. 17 Ford. "You could run 80 percent.
"It's so competitive now that you run the whole race hard. Everybody is pretty much hammer-down from start to finish."
But figuring out how to deal with the race's length, as well as the change from day to night (the green flag drops today at 6:03 p.m., with the checkered flag in darkness nearly five hours later), remains a challenge.
"You have to be mentally able to block some things and yet focus on others," said Kyle Busch, who will start on the outside of the front row today next to pole-winner Ryan Newman. "The biggest thing is the track changing, [when] we go from day to night.
"Just keeping up with the race track, what the track is doing, telling our crew chiefs how to adjust the car to make it better.
"After [dark], the track is going to stay the same probably the last 100 miles. So by then, you'd better have your stuff right."
The race's distance, however, remains the key factor in what sets it apart from other events on the Sprint Cup 36-race schedule.
"I think it's important for our series to have a race that's longer than all the other ones," veteran driver Jeff Burton said.
"It's also important for our series to have a race that's shorter than all the other ones. If the race track owners all got together and said, 'Hey, every week we're going to have 600-mile races,' I would not think that would be in our best interests."
Whatever the length, Newman thinks the quality of the racing is what's important.
"I think there's a balance there between the type of racing that you have at a given track and the opportunity to have a longer race," Newman said.
The 600 is the longest race. And the drivers will go all out all night.
"Today, you don't have that 'Let's hold back [mentality],' " Newman said. "That mentality is no longer. There is no, 'Well, let's just ride around and save our car.'
"There's no such thing as saving our car."
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