CONCORD — While the Coca-Cola 600 has had more than its share of unusual winners and bizarre circumstances over the years, Sunday night was as traditional as a June wedding.
The 55th rendition of the Coca-Cola 600 was about as normal as these races get, and far more commonplace than what we saw at this same race in 2013.
Last year was when all heck broke loose when a TV camera cable fell from the sky. It injured 10 people, damaged several racecars and caused a race delay of about 27 minutes. Three of the hurt fans had to be transported to area hospitals, although none of the injuries were serious enough to require an overnight stay.
Nothing like that happened this time. It was a nice day for a race. The weather was mid-70s perfect. The pre-race festivities struck the right Memorial Day tone, with Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the USA” while walking through the stands shaking hands and hundreds of American military men and women gathered at the track getting honored for their service.
Then there was the race itself. NASCAR hoped to have a finish something like the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day, which was a monstrous success. The Indy 500 had four lead changes in the final five laps and the second-closest finish in the race’s history.
What the 600 got was decent, but not great. Johnson made a pretty pass of Matt Kenseth on the 392nd of 400 laps and then held off Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick with a fair amount of ease to win. After Johnson’s first victory of the season at one of his favorite tracks, the six-time NASCAR champion said afterward of his competition: “They know we’re awake.”
They certainly do. But anyone who thought Johnson was asleep at the wheel this early in the season hasn’t been watching NASCAR for the past decade.
We are less than halfway through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, so there was far too much concern in the NASCAR echo chamber about Johnson’s winless streak. People are so used to the No. 48 car being dominant, though, that any time Johnson goes a month without winning it starts to feel like a slump. “We’ve created this environment for ourselves,” Johnson said.
And it’s true that with the new emphasis on winning, Johnson needed to earn his ticket into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory somewhere.
As for Johnson winning at the Charlotte Motor Speedway? That happens about as often as someone decides to grill hot dogs on Memorial Day. This was Johnson’s seventh win in a points race at CMS – he sat on the pole, so Johnson led at beginning and end.
Johnson now has won more than any other driver in the speedway’s history. “That is very cool,” Johnson said. And that’s not even counting his four all-star wins at CMS.
Given Johnson’s penchant for extreme fitness, I’m surprised he didn’t go compete in a midnight triathlon right after the race ended. He certainly seemed fired up enough to do it afterward – he probably just couldn’t find one he could get to in time.
Johnson’s teammate and across-the-street neighbor in Charlotte, Jeff Gordon, fought off his back problems to complete the entire 600-mile race and finished seventh.
Gordon even led briefly with 20 laps to go, but an earlier two-tire pit stop backfired as he was passed repeatedly by the leaders at the end. Still, Gordon fared far better than Danica Patrick, who moved all the way to second early in the race but then started dropping like a rock before her engine ultimately failed. She finished 39th.
And he was better than Kurt Busch, who was trying to complete 1100 miles of an “Indy 500-Coke 600” daily double. Busch got through a little more than 900 miles before his motor blew up in Charlotte and ended up 40th after finishing sixth in Indy.
But the night ultimately belonged to Johnson and his familiar No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy. He was a predictable winner on a predictably fine Memorial Day.
It wasn’t the Indy 500. But it also didn’t have any camera wires crashing down, and it had a six-time NASCAR champion as its winner. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler