Coca-Cola 600: Celebrating 20 Years of Racing
To some 1985 seems like only yesterday, while others consider it ancient history.
That year compact discs were introduced to U.S. consumers, eggs sold for 66 cents a dozen and ¿Cheers¿ was the No. 1 television show. Michael Jordan earned NBA rookie-of-the-year honors, the average cost of a movie ticket had yet to break $3 and a group of recording artists known as USA for Africa introduced the blockbuster hit ¿We Are the World.¿
In racing, a 29-year-old Bill Elliott was the hottest thing on four wheels and a 13-year-old prodigy named Jeff Gordon was racing winged sprint cars on Midwestern dirt tracks.
Through the efforts of the Charlotte area bottler¿Coca-Cola Bottling Company Consolidated¿Coca-Cola signed a multi-year contract to be the title sponsor of the longest event in stock car racing. Previously known as the World 600, the race became the Coca-Cola 600.
Combining Coke¿s world-wide brand identity and sports-marketing prowess with the track¿s flair for promotion and spectator entertainment, the sponsorship propelled the annual Memorial Day weekend classic to new heights.
¿Coca-Cola has played a major role in promoting our facility and in helping build the Coca-Cola 600 into one of the world¿s premier sporting events,¿ said H.A. ¿Humpy¿ Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe¿s Motor Speedway. ¿It¿s hard to believe this will be the 20th Coca-Cola 600, but looking back there have been some tremendous races.¿
1985: After struggling early in the season, two-time series champion Darrell Waltrip proved he and the No. 11 Junior Johnson operation were back on form, winning NASCAR¿s new all-star race on Saturday and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.
¿It¿s been a fantastic weekend,¿ said Waltrip, who stretched his fuel mileage to beat Harry Gant to the checkered flag in the 600. ¿You might say that¿s an old coon-hunter¿s trick. If we pitted, I don¿t think we would have won. Junior told me to draft anything that moved. The gamble paid off and the car ran out of gas as it crossed the finish line.¿
1986: Timely caution flags and Bill Elliott¿s gas guzzling Ford set the stage for Dale Earnhardt to post his first Coca-Cola 600 victory. Earnhardt took control on lap 385 when Elliott was forced to make an extra pit stop and beat Tim Richmond by 1.59 seconds.
¿I remember coming here and watching dad win sportsman races. I thought if I ever got into racing my biggest dream would be to win the Coca-Cola 600,¿ Earnhardt said. ¿I wish dad could have driven a competitive car here, but an Earnhardt has finally won the 600.¿
1987: In a race that saw contenders fall by the wayside in rapid succession, Kyle Petty was the top survivor, scoring his first superspeedway victory aboard the Wood Brothers¿ No. 21 Ford. Petty took the lead for the final time on lap 384 when a failing engine ended Rusty Wallace¿s hopes of victory.
¿I really didn¿t want to lead this race, but it seemed like I was the only one left,¿ Petty said. ¿This team has been getting more consistent and I knew it was only a matter of time before we won a superspeedway race.¿
1988: With a tire war being waged between Goodyear and Hoosier, the Coca-Cola 600 turned into a matter of survival as Darrell Waltrip posted his fourth 600-mile victory. Virtually all the Goodyear tires were withdrawn when preliminary events revealed the selected tire compound would not withstand the strain, but the Hoosier tires faced a similar situation.
¿We knew there would be tire problems,¿ said Waltrip. ¿I watched guys pass me and take off, only to see them in the wall a few laps later.¿
The caution flag was unfurled 13 times for 89 laps and 10 of the 41 starters were eliminated in accidents. Harry Gant broke two bones in his leg and a few weeks after the race it was discovered that Buddy Baker, involved in a multi-car accident, had a blood clot on his brain.
1989: Darrell Waltrip bounced back from being spun out of the lead by Rusty Wallace in the all-star race one week earlier to win the Coca-Cola 600 for the fifth time.
¿This race is won partly by attrition and partly by patience, and I¿m a very patient fella,¿ said Waltrip. ¿This is a fitting end to a trying week. I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought I¿d have the fan support I¿ve had this week.
¿It¿s been hard to restrain my emotions from what happened last Sunday. But I gave NASCAR my word that it¿s over. But, I¿ll tell you one thing, last Sunday lit a fire under 17 or 18 guys wearing orange uniforms. They were determined.¿
1990: Defending series champion Rusty Wallace pulled back into victory lane following a dominant performance that saw the Missouri native lead 306 of the 400 laps. The victory was Wallace¿s second at the 1.5-mile track, but his first in the Coca-Cola 600.
¿I was getting off the corners so quick that it felt like I had rockets in the tailpipes,¿ said Wallace who was in his final season as driver of Raymond Beadle¿s No. 27 Pontiac. ¿It feels really good to win. People have been counting us out. We might have been down this year, but never out.¿
1991: Davey Allison, who dominated the all-star race one week earlier, turned in a similar performance in the Coca-Cola 600. The second-generation superstar led 264 of the 400 laps en route to victory in Robert Yates¿ Ford. Allison¿s back-to-back victories came after NASCAR allowed Ford teams to raise their trunk lids one inch.
¿The Fords have been pretty unstable this year,¿ Allison explained. ¿That is reflected in the number of wins we had¿zero. The rule change doesn¿t help us go faster, it helps us go straighter. It gives our cars more downforce, but creates more drag.¿
Dale Earnhardt, who finished third, was very upset after the race. ¿It¿s pretty hard to outrun an illegal car,¿ he said.
1992: Quick pit work propelled Dale Earnhardt from third to first with 53 laps remaining and the Kannapolis, N.C., resident went on to claim his second Coca-Cola 600 victory. Controversy swirled following the race as runner-up Ernie Irvan and third-place man Kyle Petty were convinced Earnhardt broke the 55-mph pit road speed limit on his final stop.
¿There¿s no way a man can be over two seconds behind you on the race track and everybody pits at about the same time, and he comes out over a second ahead,¿ said Petty. ¿Unless he had a 13-second pit stop, there¿s no way he should have been up there where he was. The only place he could have gotten that advantage was speeding down pit road.¿
¿I got in real quick and flat-footed it on the return lane,¿ said Earnhardt. ¿I fudged all I could on the speed limit without getting penalized.¿
1993: Dale Earnhardt overcame penalties for rough driving, speeding on pit road and having too many men over the wall on a pit stop to win his second consecutive Coca-Cola 600. Earnhardt was assessed a one-lap penalty for spinning Greg Sacks on lap 327. Earnhardt had been fading and was in danger of going a lap down to leader Dale Jarrett. Reportedly, NASCAR officials heard Earnhardt tell his RCR crew that if a caution flag was needed, he would make sure one came out.
¿When I got behind him, it must have taken the air off his spoiler,¿ said Earnhardt. ¿I may have rubbed against him, but I didn¿t run up there and bang into him intentionally.¿
The penalty fired up Earnhardt and he charged back and took the lead from Ernie Irvan on lap 362. He was 3.73 seconds ahead of Jeff Gordon at the checkered flag.
1994: Crew chief Ray Evernham¿s decision to take only right-side tires on his team¿s final pit stop, gave Jeff Gordon the lead and the 22-year-old former sprint car driver went on to win the Coca-Cola 600. It was Gordon¿s first career victory in NASCAR¿s premier series. Rusty Wallace led 187 laps of the 400 laps, but had to settle for runner-up honors, nearly four-seconds behind Gordon.
¿This absolutely is the greatest moment of my life,¿ said an emotional Gordon after leading only 16 laps. ¿What a crew I¿ve got. They are the greatest.¿
1995: Ken Schrader¿s misfortune turned into jubilation for the Labonte family as Bobby Labonte scored his first career NEXTEL Cup Series victory and brother Terry finished second in one of the most competitive Coca-Cola 600s ever. The younger Labonte started second and led the first seven laps, but was not heard from again until the final quarter of the race. He took the lead when Schrader¿s engine expired on lap 357 and romped to a 6.27-second victory. The race saw an amazing 32 lead changes among 12 drivers.
¿I couldn¿t believe Schrader fell out of the race,¿ said Labonte. ¿After finishing second to Jeff Gordon a couple of times this year, it feels great to win here at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The car was better late in the race after we made some adjustments. I also changed my line and picked up two or three tenths.¿
1996: Second-generation competitor Dale Jarrett, driving Robert Yates¿ No. 88 Ford, led 199 of the 400 laps en route to his first Coca-Cola 600 victory, beating Dale Earnhardt to the checkered flag by nearly half a lap.
¿I¿d like to take a tremendous amount of the credit, but these guys deserve all the credit,¿ said Jarrett, motioning to his crew. ¿There are a lot of people that could have won in that car tonight. I¿m glad Robert Yates, Larry McReynolds and the guys chose me and we chose Todd Parrott as the crew chief. I think we have a good thing going, and I¿ve been telling people that as good as the first 10 races were, the best is yet to come.¿
1997: Jeff Gordon claimed his second Coca-Cola 600 trophy in a rain-plagued race that started Sunday evening and ended Monday morning. The start was delayed 26 minutes due to rain and Ernie Irvan dominated the first 195 laps before more rain brought the race to a halt. Action finally resumed 2 hours and 36 minutes later and the second segment became a contest of strategy when NASCAR announced the race would have only 20 laps remaining when the clock reached 12:45 a.m.
Crew chief Ray Evernham¿s pit strategy proved to be the key and Gordon passed Rusty Wallace just 17 laps before the checkered flag was waved after 333 of the scheduled 400 laps.
¿I was leading and didn¿t realize we were going to have to come in and pit,¿ said Gordon. ¿When I found out we had to pit, I thought it was going to ruin our whole race. I think Rusty made the right call by coming in early and leaving us out on old tires. Ray also made a great call by going with four because Rusty had been out there a while and he thought I could run him down.¿
1998: A pit-road gamble paid off as Jeff Gordon won his third Coca-Cola 600 in just six starts. Gordon¿s crew chief Ray Evernham opted to change four tires while the other cars on the lead lap changed only two during a lap 379 caution period. Gordon charged through the pack and took the lead from Rusty Wallace with just nine laps remaining.
¿He (Wallace) was driving as hard as he possibly could,¿ said Gordon. ¿He knew I had four tires and he had two. When I was behind him, I was getting tight. I knew my only chance was to drive to the outside. He drove into one really hard, and when I dove to the outside, it got him loose. I had to give him some room, so I went up the track and then here comes Bobby Labonte.
¿We all drove into turn three a ton,¿ Gordon continued. ¿When Bobby dove to my outside, it actually helped because my car was a little tight. He loosened me up and I was able to turn and get underneath Rusty.¿
1999: Jeff Burton led 197 of the 400 laps en route to his first Coca-Cola 600 victory. In addition to the $212,500 first-place prize, Burton claimed a $1 million bonus as a participant in R.J. Reynolds¿ Winston No Bull 5 program. Bobby Labonte, who led 98 laps, settled for second with Burton¿s Roush Racing teammate Mark Martin third.
¿It was a great night. We led a lot of laps and had great pit stops,¿ said Burton. ¿Most of the time we made the changes we needed to make on the car. To win Darlington and to win Charlotte all in the same year is pretty big for us because we¿ve struggled at Charlotte.¿
2000: Rookie-of-the-Year contender Matt Kenseth led the final 26 laps to record his first career Cup victory in the Coca-Cola 600. Kenseth won from the 21st starting position, the highest starting position to date for a Coca-Cola 600 winner.
The race was split into two segments when rain stopped the action for nearly an hour after 254 laps. Jerry Nadeau dominated the first portion, but engine problems ended his night shortly after racing resumed. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 175 laps, a majority of those coming after the red flag, but he had to settle for fourth.
¿The last couple laps I was trying not to hit the wall and trying to stay in the gas hard enough to stay in front,¿ Kenseth said. ¿With two laps to go, I started getting a little teary. I had to kind of keep my head about me, hit my marks and make sure I didn¿t mess up. It feels great to win our first race, especially the Coke 600.¿
2001: Jeff Burton led 126 of the 400 laps, including the final 63, to record his second Coca-Cola 600 victory in three years. Kevin Harvick was 3.19 seconds back with Tony Stewart, who finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day, third.
¿I don¿t want to sound facetious or cocky, but winning felt normal,¿ said Burton. ¿Winning is what Roush Racing is all about. We have all the equipment we need to win races. We have all the backing, all the resources. This is a hard sport, so it felt more gratifying because of the struggles we¿ve gone through, but, at the same time, it felt like, ¿Hey, this is what it¿s all about.¿¿
¿The thing that makes me most proud right now is I ran 600 laps and we raised $240,000 for the Victory Junction Gang Camp,¿ said Stewart about money that had been pledged for every lap he completed at Charlotte and Indianapolis. ¿That gave both of these races a purpose, rather than being something selfish. We were able to help a lot of good kids that deserve this.¿
2002: Ending a 73-race winless streak, veteran Mark Martin captured his first Coca-Cola 600. In addition to the $280,033 first-place prize, Martin also collected the Winston No Bull 5 $1 million bonus.
Martin took advantage of Jimmie Johnson¿s pit road miscue to take the lead on lap 361 and then turned in an amazing charge to hold off teammate Matt Kenseth. It was the fourth straight Coca-Cola 600 triumph for Roush Racing.
¿The last couple of laps really boiled down to one thing,¿ Martin said. ¿If I gave Matt the opportunity get beside me, we were gonna lose. We wanted to win really bad. It¿s been a long time since we¿ve won and I probably wanted to win for my team worse than I even wanted to win for myself.¿
2003: California native Jimmie Johnson became the first driver to win the Coca-Cola 600 from a provisional starting spot as rain wreaked havoc with the longest race on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule.
Johnson, who also won the all-star race a week earlier, suffered engine problems in his No. 48 Lowe¿s Chevrolet during qualifying and had to start at the back of the 43-car field.
The start was delayed by rain and the race was stopped for nearly an hour after just 104 laps when rain fell again. The field was under caution for an accident involving John Andretti, Larry Foyt and Elliott Sadler when the skies opened up one more time, forcing officials to call the race after 276 laps.
¿To start 43rd and end up leading this race shows the capabilities of our race car and our race team,¿ said Johnson who needed only 140 laps to move into the top-five. ¿To win both races with two different race cars really says a lot for our race team. One car was built for sprint runs and this car did its job for this race.¿
Tickets for the May 30 Coca-Cola 600 start at $29 and can be obtained by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS.