There were many storylines that we laid out to the viewers of our "NASCAR on FOX" broadcast Sunday afternoon before they waved the green flag on the Sprint Cup schedule's longest race. Certainly, one of the big things we always point out is that it’s an endurance race. We are talking 100 more miles than any other race we run.
One of the biggest balancing acts these teams face comes from starting the race in the heat of the afternoon, yet keeping up with the ever-changing track conditions as it ends under the lights late in the evening.
You saw Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle, the third- and fourth-place finishers Sunday, flex a lot of muscle and lead a lot of laps in the early going. The problem for them was they just weren’t able to quite keep up with the changing track conditions. Despite top-five finishes by both, they weren’t in contention for the win there at the end of the night.
On the flip side of that were the winner and runner-up, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin. Both had good qualifying runs, and both were steady during the beginning and middle of the race. Then you saw them getting stronger as we got later into the evening. As the race was winding down, they were the best cars on the track.
Believe me, it is a challenge to be strong all night long. Biffle led half the race Sunday night. It was just that one missing last adjustment the car needed to carry him through that last 100 miles. The team didn’t quite hit on it and simply wasn’t as good as Kahne's No. 5 and Hamlin's No. 11.
It was a pretty strange race. It was the fastest Coca-Cola 600 that we have ever had. The average speed was more than 155 mph. We had five cautions, and combined they were for only 23 laps. There was a tremendous amount of green-flag pit stops. Eleven drivers combined for the 31 lead changes.
The other storyline that played out in front of everyone were the mistakes on pit road by drivers and teams. Brad Keselowski finished fifth, but he spent the majority of the night trying to overcome a pit road speeding penalty on that first caution, around Lap 111.
One driver, Jimmie Johnson, was someone I thought was going to be a player at the end. However, on a pit stop the crew dropped the jack on the gas man and Johnson took the gas can with him out of his pit box. That forced him into a stop-and-go penalty under green. All that got the No. 48 a lap down, and Johnson was barely able to recover to an 11th-place finish.
I think Johnson showed what a class act and true champion he was after the race. He could have very easily have thrown the pit crew members under the bus after they cost him a legitimate shot at winning that race. Johnson doesn’t do that. He believes firmly in “winning and losing as a team.”
Obviously, the protocol I am used to, as a former crew chief, is the driver goes when the jack is dropped. Crew chief Chad Knaus made it clear on the radio they were only taking two tires. However, they needed to hold Johnson longer to pack that car full of fuel, which takes longer to do than it takes to change only two tires.
That poor gas man can only do so much to wrestle that can of fuel out of the car. Obviously, his main job is to get that tank full and he simply wasn’t expecting the jack to drop that quickly. It was just one of those racing deals where folks are being aggressive and trying to get everything they can done quickly, but a mistake happened.
There were a lot of twists and turns Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. We still saw a lot of aggressive racing. I thought one of the most incredible visuals of the night was the in-car camera showing Biffle on the lead, man-handling that car even while he was out front with a two- to three-second lead.
So here we sit with Dover coming up. That will mark the halfway point in the race to the Chase. Teams need to get the mistakes and the miscues out of their systems right now because when that Chase starts, you have to be flawless as a team if you want to win the championship. Like we saw last year in the Chase, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were spot-on each and every race of the 10-race Chase. One mistake in the Chase can cost you the championship these days.
The reality in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is the competition is as tight as it ever has been. It’s difficult to beat the other 42 teams on the track. It’s difficult to be the other 42 teams on pit road. You simply can’t throw in mistakes during the Chase and expect to contend for wins or the championship.
Finally, what a roller coaster of a day it was for car owner Chip Ganassi. His IndyCar teams finished first and second in the running of the Indianapolis 500. Yet later Sunday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway, both his drivers suffered through pit road miscues. Both had loose wheels before they finished 20th and 21st. That definitely was the classic example of the highs and lows of a car owner all on the same day.