A scaled-down Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will be the center of attention on one of motor racing’s biggest days.
NASCAR will be the only major live racing event Sunday. Replays and re-airs of previous Monaco GPs and Indianapolis 500s are being shown throughout the afternoon, ahead of one of the crown jewel events for NASCAR. Fans are still not permitted to attend, and personnel remains cut down to those deemed essential, drivers will only get on track — weather permitting — for a qualifying session, while the usually sobering military-themed pre-race show from the Charlotte frontstretch will be virtual.
“Our place on the greatest day in motorsports is normally the grand finale. This year, the spotlight is even greater, not just for race fans but for the entire world of sports fans,” Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said. “We’re proud to play our part in bringing major league live sports competition back to television, and we’re looking forward to entertaining a worldwide audience on Memorial Day weekend. It’s what we’ve done for six decades, and now more than ever, people need something traditional to look forward to.”
NASCAR Cup Series teams ran two races last week at Darlington, the first races held after a 10-week pause brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. Those races were not on the original 2020 schedule.
The Coke 600 (6 p.m. ET, FOX) is in its traditional slot on the calendar, and drivers have shaken the cobwebs off to fall back into a racing routine — albeit with learning to carry their own equipment to the car, since there are no entourages, and having to keep themselves in self-isolation in the hours leading up to the green flag.
Drivers who spoke ahead of this weekend’s race still mentioned the importance of being physically prepared for the longest race of the year. Hydration and exercise are crucial, and those who can power through the extra 100 miles will likely come away with a respectable result.
Qualifying is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET (airing live on FS1), but there is inclement weather in the forecast. Should the session run, it would be the only on-track time teams have before the race as NASCAR continues to operate under a scaled-back run-of-show that focuses on running races to get teams in and out of a facility in the same day.
Given all the circumstances — no fans, no weekend-long build-up to the race, no preceding events from Monaco and Indy — this weekend does have a different feeling admitted, William Byron.
“It’s different,” he said. “It feels different. Usually, at this time of the race weekend, you kind of know what to expect, and you’ve been through practice. Having not sat in the car physically yet to know what’s going to happen, it feels much different.
“But in some instances, like a normal race like we’ve been having, you just kind of roll with the next one because we’ve had a series of races here every few days. So, (we’re) starting to get in a little bit of a rhythm of just racing a lot.”
After two events at Darlington, there will be new challenges teams face Sunday aside from the race length.
Qualifying is supposed to take place in the heat of the day, whereas most of the race will run deep into the night. Team Penske crew chief Todd Gordon explained how qualifying is during a part of the day when teams would skip practice because of how different the conditions are from what they face in the race.
“Track position is important, so you have to figure out how to qualify in those conditions to give yourself the best opportunity for the race and then be able to adjust on your car through the evening and into the night to keep up with the track,” said Gordon. “Charlotte is probably the most temperature-sensitive place that we race, so that’s a big challenge.”
Plus, there will be traction compound on the track that will not be worn in. Officials have applied PJ1 to the track in addition to running the tire dragon in hopes of creating grip and additional grooves.
“It’ll be different than other times we’ve run with it before though, because you’re not going to have practice laps on the track or a NASCAR Xfinity Series race on it before,” said Gordon.
“From a personnel standpoint … the pit crew guys had probably the toughest track to come back to and pit with Darlington. We used every set of tires we had in both races, so monitoring the fatigue on those guys will be key when you look at 900 miles of racing at Charlotte (between two races) in the next few days.”
Sunday is featuring temperatures in the upper 80s. So, as is customary for the Coke 600, the expectation is that everyone will be dealing with the heat and humidity. Physically and mentally, Charlotte will again be a challenge when the green flag drops. And when it does, while many things around the day will have looked and felt different, the unique challenges and prestige of the Coca-Cola 600 will be the same.
“The Coke 600 is a crown jewel event; it’s always been that way for us,” said Joey Logano. “It’s such a big deal to try to win that one.
“There is going to be three- and four-wide racing. There is more room at Charlotte than there is at Darlington, so there’s going to be more aggressive moves that you’ll see. I expect the outside lane still to be the dominant one and that to be something we’ve got to fight through.
“Yes, it’s 600 miles, and it’s a long one, but I guarantee those restarts are going to be super intense because once you get 15-20 laps into a run, it just gets harder and harder to pass. But for the first 15-20 laps, it’s going to be game on where we’re going to be very intense out there pushing and shoving.”