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CUP: From Sprint To Marathon

Last Saturday night, 21 of NASCAR’s best racers ran a sprint. This Sunday night, 43 of them will run a marathon on the same track.

After running just 150 miles in the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway — the shortest race of the season — this week the drivers and crews must prepare to run 600 grueling miles in the hot, muggy North Carolina air.

Instead of checkers or wreckers, the mantra this week will be to use it but don’t lose it, in order to be there at the end. It’s a completely different mindset for the drivers to deal with this week.

“Racing 600 miles, in one sitting, is very challenging,” said Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge. “We’ve had a couple weekends this year where rain has forced us to run both the Nationwide and Cup Series races on the same day. Those equaled to over 800 miles. The difference is they weren’t in one sitting. We were able to get out of the car, stretch our legs and get something to drink. You don’t have that luxury in the Coca-Cola 600. It can wear you down physically, as well as mentally, and you need to be prepared for it.”

One driver acutely aware of the challenges of the Coke 600 is Jeff Burton, who has won it twice before and has three victories overall at the 1.5-mile CMS track.

“Running the Coca-Cola 600 is a long day’s work,” said Burton. “It’s the longest race of the year and it starts late in the day, so those two things makes it harder. Waiting to start the race is emotionally hard. With so many different race day schedules – east coast, west coast, night race, afternoon race – it’s hard for your body to adjust to what it needs to be doing. The late afternoon start throws a wrench at you because you’re eating and sleep schedules change. Then, you add 600 miles of racing on top of that. It’s a perfect storm of stuff going on that makes this race a challenge. Don’t get me wrong – there are no excuses. You have to physically ready no matter what.”

This year, there are some especially compelling storylines to add to the mix. Kevin Harvick is the NASCAR Sprint Cup points leader and just last week signed a new and presumably very lucrative contract to remain at Richard Childress Racing. But in his last five Coca-Cola 600s, Harvick has finished 41st, 14th, 21st, 34th and 14th — an average finish of 24.8, not what you’d expect from the points leader.

“This race has been the Achilles heel of everything we have done over the last several years at Charlotte for whatever reason,” said Harvick. “We ran a lot better there the last race we went to. I think we ran 13th or 14th which is like a victory for us so hopefully we can build on that. ... We had a decent test and hopefully we can move forward. Our goal going there is to run in the top-10 and have a solid day. You obviously want to win but the history at Charlotte has not been good for us so going there with a top-10 goal is what I think is realistic.”

There are other questions as well: Will Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin make up after last weekend’s ugly spat at the All-Star race? Can the Ford teams finally find the winner’s circle? Or Jeff Gordon, for that matter? Will Jimmie Johnson break the jinx of the spoiler and get back to winning? It ought to make for an interesting, albeit very long, night.

And although the marathon may not always prove compelling in its early stages, at the end it promises to get very interesting.

“The last 100 miles has a major influence on the race,” said Burton. “If you look back on previous race, drivers leading at the 400 or 500-mile mark don’t win the race. It’s not because of mechanical failures. The added distance gives the drivers in second, third and fourth a chance to make his car better. It gives the driver leading a chance to make a mistake. So, the extra 100 miles is definitely a factor.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEEDtv.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.