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Going the extra mile -- or 100

NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 demands added endurance and patience for the drivers, who this year also have to deal with the Car of Tomorrow.

May 25, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

CONCORD, N.C. -- A 500-mile NASCAR race is grueling enough for its 43 drivers. But 600 miles?

"It's going to be a long, long night," Jeff Gordon said of today's Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway. "It's going to be tough, it always is."

When the race debuted 48 years ago with the opening of Lowe's (then called Charlotte Motor Speedway), the extra 100 miles were added to help it stand apart from the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.

The extra mileage demands added endurance and patience for the drivers. They also have to contend with a drop in temperatures that affects the cars' handling on the 1.5-mile oval, because the race starts in the late afternoon and ends under the lights.

"We run 500 miles and your body gets used to it and you think you wouldn't notice another 100 miles added, but mentally you do," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

"Physically it's not a problem, but mentally your brain is just worked after it's over," Earnhardt said.

To further complicate matters, this is the first year that NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow is being used in the 400-lap race, and many teams are still trying to figure out how best to set up the COT for such a long race.

"The car definitely is a challenge, and it's making it tougher on all the drivers and all the teams," said Gordon, a three-time 600 winner.

Race strategy revolves around pacing and patience, several drivers said.

"You don't necessarily rush, but you don't want to go a lap down," said pole-sitter Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing. "This is a long race where you can probably get your lap back, but with the way these cars are, we're not sure that we'll see many yellow flags."

Reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who also has won the 600 three times for Hendrick, said "you've got to be smart and take care of your stuff all night long, and then race at the end for the win."

He also said, "it's really amazing how fast it goes by when you're inside the car. For whatever reason, the laps click off and the time goes by and before you know it, you're in the closing laps."

Perhaps, but 600 miles "is a marathon of a race," said Carl Edwards who, like Busch, is a three-time winner this season.

That prompted one reporter to ask Edwards, who drives the No. 99 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, whether he ever gets bored in the car.

Replied Edwards: "It's never boring in a race car at one of these places. Never."

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Speculation is mounting that NASCAR's Labor Day race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana could be moved to October, starting next year.

The track has struggled to sell all of its 92,000 seats on Labor Day weekend partly because of the weekend's typically hot temperatures, and has petitioned NASCAR for another date.

One proposal being weighed is a three-track swap, in which Fontana would receive Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway's date in October, Atlanta Motor Speedway would get the Labor Day race and Talladega would receive Atlanta's fall date in October, the Charlotte Observer reported.

That would put the California race in the middle of the 10-race Chase for the Cup that decides NASCAR's premier championship.

But NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said the sanctioning body is still meeting with officials for all tracks and that next year's schedule "is still being determined." NASCAR hopes to announce the schedule by September, he added.

Auto Club Speedway President Gillian Zucker said "nothing has been decided yet" and that the three-track swap idea "is one of several scenarios that I have heard are being discussed."

She also said "it's possible that [Labor Day] date will remain the same" next year but is hopeful of moving the race.

"Everyone is in agreement that a later date for the second [Fontana] race is in the best interests of the sport," Zucker said. Her track also stages a Cup race in late February.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Coca-Cola 600 lineup

Lineup for today's race (2 p.m. PDT, Channel 11):

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