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NASCAR: Longest race tests drivers

By Bill Whitehead
Scripps Howard News
Earlier this week in a moment of sheer honesty ó and maybe a little bit of hyperbole ó 2004 Nextel Cup champion driver Kurt Busch admitted that he was glad this Sunday’s race started late in the afternoon and ended deep into the evening.
“Laps 355-400…will be potentially the most demanding 100 miles in the history of NASCAR racing,” Busch said. “It’ll definitely separate the men from the boys, that’s for sure. It’ll be an unbelievable test of stamina and endurance. I’m sure the medical staff on hand will be ready with plenty of oxygen and fluids, if need be.”
Just a wee bit of exaggeration there ó and the math’s not right, but Kurt’s paid to drive cars, not calculate ó but his point is well taken: Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is a grueling race that goes beyond anything most of the drivers have experienced, except maybe for Robby Gordon’s Baja 1000 experiences.
But in terms of time, it doesn’t compare to some real NASCAR epics. Remember the early 1990s at Dover, when races were 500 laps that totaled 500 miles, started just after noon on TNN and were truly survival of the fittest, especially those June events that were run in sweltering summer heat?
Last year’s 600, won by Casey Mears, was completed in just over four hours and 36 minutes. In September of 1993, Rusty Wallace recorded the first of his three wins at Dover, leading the majority of the 500-lapper and passing Darrell Waltrip with 20 to go. Time of race: One minute short of five hours. That’s not a race. It’s a marathon.
Those days are over, though, as Dover scaled it back to 400 miles beginning with that September race in 1998. That left the 600, one of Cup racing’s crown jewels, as the one race on the schedule that challenged drivers the most from a time standpoint. The 600’s pre-race activities are long, and if there’s any rain, drivers can expect to go until midnight or longer.
“You have to prepare your body and you’ll be good,” said Bobby Labonte, the 1995 winner of the 600. “You lose a lot of weight in these races, and that’s figuring a lot of 400-mile races that we have now. Even a 500-mile race is fewer and fewer. Now think about getting back to 200 extra miles and it can drain some guys. You have to be in shape.”
Hey, race fans have it tough, too, but there’s not much weight being lost all day in front of the TV. It’s a labor of love on Memorial Day weekend, which features an 1,100-mile race day.
The real diehard NASCAR fan gives in a bit and devotes some time to open-wheel racing, starting off early as the Indianapolis 500 pre-race begins at noon. And with no rain in the forecast for Charlotte this Sunday, the 600 should take the checkers around 10 that night. That’s a 10-hour viewing day, but NASCAR fans are durable and can make it.
Labonte said he likes the length and it fits his style because he lets the race come to him. Kasey Kahne, who won the all-star race last Saturday night thanks to the fans at home, said he didn’t mind the extra laps “because it gives more of a chance to figure out your car.”
Something tells me there will be plenty of time for anything regarding racing this weekend.

KING TO KING: Lowe’s Motor Speedway’s H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler announced his retirement this Wednesday. Wheeler, the undisputed “King of the Promoters” in NASCAR, received some kind words from another King, Richard Petty.
“It may be a few more years before we can really measure the impact that Humpy Wheeler had on the sport of stock car racing,” Petty said of the LMS president/general manager. “Over his 33-year career, he and I had one thing in common. We both have always held true to the notion that the fans are what drive our sport. His passion was to ensure that when each fan left the track, they felt as if they had been a part of a happening.
“Under his direction, Lowe’s Motor Speedway became the gold standard by which all other racetracks were built and in how they were measured.”

PATRIOTIC RIDE: Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver Mark Martin is making sure fans don’t forget what Memorial Day weekend is all about. A four-time Cup winner at LMS, Martin’s No. 8 Chevrolet will carry a unique paint scheme that features photos of eight soldiers.
“We would love nothing more than to be able to win the race for all of those men and women in uniform defending our country, and for those who have given their lives in that same fight for freedom. They are the real heroes,” said Martin, the 2002 Coca-Cola 600 winner.

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