NASCAR Crash Course: The Coca-Cola 600 that no one wanted to win

The Coca-Cola 600 was the lone NASCAR Cup Series crown jewel race Denny Hamlin had yet to win. As the smoke cleared nearing midnight on Memorial Day Weekend, he was the one left holding the trophy.

That’s because almost everyone else chose to give it back.

  • Chase Elliott? Hit the wall after leading 86 laps.
  • Tyler Reddick? Another flat tire while in contention (what else is new?)
  • Chase Briscoe? Spinning out under Kyle Larson while fighting for the lead.
  • Larson himself? Knocked out after a weekend where he crashed in practice, then the race, lit his car on fire, had two tire penalties and charged from the back of the field multiple times… only to get wrecked in NASCAR Overtime.

That’s just a snapshot of who lost their shot to win the craziest Coca-Cola 600 in 17 years.

Back then, a “levigation” experiment gone wrong with the asphalt of Charlotte Motor Speedway led to a record 22 caution flags – over 25 percent of the race was run under yellow. It marked a turning point in the competition at Charlotte, where the competition has gotten so stale on the oval track its second date got switched to its infield road course beginning in 2018.

Did what we see Sunday night just bring NASCAR’s hometown track for its race teams back to life? The sport’s Next Gen car produced phenomenal racing here, leaving drivers on the edge of control. Through it all, Hamlin struggled from the pole, losing the lead on lap 9 and falling back with an ill-handling car. He was dealing with a substitute crew chief, Sean McCauley, as head wrench Chris Gabehart is serving a four-race suspension after a wheel came off at Dover Motor Speedway earlier this month.

Hamlin then got involved in the day’s biggest wrecka dozen cars just before the halfway point and was penalized for pitting before the pit road was open. He hit Joey Logano’s tire changer, Tanner Andrews, on a caution-flag stop (Andrews is OK). By the end of the third stage, Hamlin had finished no better than 10th in any of them as Toyota were scrambling to keep up.

“Man, we weren’t very good all day,” Hamlin admitted. “Just got ourselves in the right place at the right time. What a battle there.”

That included a slow drive up to around fifth in the final stage before a NASCAR Overtime finish scrambled pit strategy. Hamlin’s team chose to go with four tires while some of the fastest cars all day, like Larson, took just two.

As a wreck unfolded during the first overtime lap, Hamlin’s car had an incredible restart and shot into the lead off turn 4. Chaos unfolded around the No. 11, and it was Hamlin who scooted away on the inside, stealing the lead and a Survivor-style win that had eluded him for 17 years.

“I knew they were all going to drive in way too deep,” Hamlin said, “So I actually backed up the corner so I got a good run off because you just never know what can happen. It’s kind of just played out, luckily, how I was hoping. “

Hamlin has struggled with luck this season, posting more DNFs (four) than top-10 finishes (three). On a night where just one lead-lap driver, Ty Dillon, avoided getting involved in a crash or a penalty, perhaps it’s a signal Hamlin’s luck – and Charlotte’s racing – is turning around.

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Green: Joe Gibbs Racing – A terrible night for Toyota’s flagship got redeemed during that crazy overtime. Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell all wound up inside the top 5. For Hamlin, this second win is also critically important: after a horrible year points-wise, it clinches a playoff spot in case there are more than 16 winners during the regular season .

Yellow: Chase Briscoe – Briscoe was one clean pass away from winning his first Coca-Cola 600. Instead, he spun out, causing the initial NASCAR Overtime and then was forced to settle for a fourth-place finish. You have to credit Briscoe for giving 110 percent, but it’s the second time in two months (see: Bristol Dirt Race) a last-ditch bid for victory ended with him losing control.

Order: Daniel Suarez – So many candidates here: Bubba Wallace, Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski. Suarez trumps them all, ending his day on a wrecker after leading 36 laps and running inside the top 5 all night. While teammate Ross Chastain keeps cruising to wins and top-5 finishes, the original Trackhouse Racing Team driver sits 49 points out of a playoff spot.

Speeding Ticket: Austin Dillon – Dillon looked to have the race won after a four-tire stop had him shot out of a cannon during the first NASCAR Overtime. Coming off turn 2 onto the backstretch, he made a daring three-wide move to get to second.

Entering turns 3 and 4, Dillon somehow had enough traction to get alongside Larson for the race win. His mistake came in coming up in front of the No. 5 car, thinking he was cleared.

“I just had one wiggle in the center of 3 and 4,” Dillon said. “I thought with four tires, it would stick right there. That one wiggle kind of killed us. I had to go for it. I needed a win.”

The incident reminded me of this August wreck at Michigan – incidental contact with Brad Keselowski that knocked Dillon out of playoff contention. After a strong 2021 left him on the outside looking in, that’s left Dillon feeling he needs a win to make the postseason in 2022 despite another solid year in the points. It led to a move that became just a little too aggressive at the moment.

Oops!

The day’s scariest wreck occurred when Suarez got tight off turn 4, spinning out after contact with Briscoe. Chris Buescher had nowhere to go, punted into the mess and then started flipping in a bizarre instance where one of his tires got caught underneath the car.

Buescher called the incident “painful” but was ultimately unharmed as the AMR safety crew did an incredible job gently flipping the car back over. Buescher ultimately wound up 26th after the first flip with NASCAR’s Next Gen car.

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