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Coca-Cola 600 long, unpredictable and immensely entertaining

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The Coca-Cola 600 was many things — excruciatingly long, wildly unpredictable and perhaps above all else, immensely entertaining.

It was, as William Byron described after getting caught up in a 12-car crash, “chaos out there.”

In race that took five hours, 13 minutes to complete and included 18 cautions and 17 cars finishing in the garage in various states of disrepair, the first Next Gen race at Charlotte Motor Speedway left many shaking their heads over the events of the night. Denny Hamlin ultimately won the longest race in NASCAR history (619.5 miles) by beating Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to the finish line by 0.014 seconds in double overtime.

Things were so insane at one point that Fox Sports racing analyst and longtime Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer exclaimed, “This is the wildest and craziest 600 that has ever happened!”

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And he was right.

Few cars escaped the race unscathed, with Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace among the many who simply got sideways while racing alone and spun out, often times ending up harmlessly in the infield turf and drawing a yellow flag.

Others weren’t as fortunate.

Chris Buescher was involved in a scary wreck that saw his No. 17 Ford flip five times before landing on its hood. Safety crews had to carefully to flip his car over before Buescher could climb out of the vehicle. He walked away sore but relatively unscathed.

“Thank you to everybody working for not slamming it back,” Buescher said. “It was nice to be able to get out. The blood is rushing to your head a little bit.”

And that wasn’t even the craziest wreck of the night.

Last weekend’s All-Star Race winner, Ryan Blaney, got too low on the apron at the bottom of the track on lap 192 and spun to the right, heading up the track where he collected 11 other cars in the melee and ended the night for Brad Keselowski, Wallace, Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott, whose mangled cars were taken behind the pit wall.

The most costly wreck, at least for defending race champion Kyle Larson, came when Chase Briscoe crashed with two laps to go while trying to take the lead from him, setting up overtime and adding to the madness.

Larson, who appeared on the verge of becoming the first driver to repeat as champion of the Coca-Cola 600 since Jimmie Johnson in 2005, then got caught up in a wreck a few minutes later when Austin Dillon raced up from behind and went four wide for the lead. Larson nipped Dillon, causing another multicar collision and extending the race even further.

Hamlin somehow made it through the carnage without a nick and held off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on the second restart for the win.

“The (Next Gen) car has less side force and less general downforce,” Hamlin said of all the wrecks. “In our old car you could kind of hang out. The right side was a billboard, it was flat, so it caught air. Any time you stick your hand out of the window, you could feel it. This one is all rounded. The moment it gets sideways, it just spins out. You don’t have as much aerodynamics that keeps the car planted to the track.”

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That was a point of frustration for Byron, a Charlotte native.

“It’s chaos out there,” Byron said. “You can’t drive the car the slightest bit sideways or you’re wrecked. So, if somebody gets a little bit sideways, then we all wreck. It either takes out other people or they spin to the infield. Just chaos.”

Cup veteran Kevin Harvick expected as much after seeing the uncertainty the Next Gen car has brought this season.

“I’ve been to this race a lot and I knew that the way the mile-and-a-half races had gone this particular year that it was gonna be a war,” Harvick said. “There weren’t as many tire issues as I thought there were going to be, but it wound up just being spinouts because the cars would just become an incredibly big handful as you’d get toward the end of the run.”

Harvick shook his head, adding “it was definitely interesting, to say the least.”

More interesting than the often mundane 600-mile races here at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the past. In 2016, for instance, Martin Truex Jr. led 392 of 400 laps, repeatedly riding away from the pack in clean air. It was an impressive feat but didn’t push the entertainment meter.

Sunday’s race, meanwhile, featured 31 lead changes involving 13 different drivers.

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“To me, that was the most fun Charlotte race I’ve ever ran,” Briscoe said. “The racetrack was awesome. You could run the fence. You could run the middle. You could run the bottom. You could throw sliders.”

He offered high praise for the Next Gen car, too.

“In the past it seemed like we kind of got single-filed out,” Briscoe said. “It was a lot of fun. I’d do another 600 miles for sure.”

Hamlin acknowledged there is still a lot that teams needs to learn about the Next Gen car but said that will come in time.

“Every time we change cars it takes like a significant amount of time to get it right,” Hamlin said. “This was a major overhaul of a car. Other than it had a steering wheel and four tires, there wasn’t much that was similar to the previous generation car. That car had been honed in for a long time. This one still has some work to do. We got to do some testing to try to fix it in some areas. But in the meantime, we’re still having some pretty good racing.”

Hot Ticket: Concord NASCAR hub gets sellout for Memorial Day weekend

NASCAR is very much still a hot ticket in its Charlotte hub.

Charlotte Motor Speedway announced a sellout for the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, meaning approximately 100,000 fans are expected to attend NASCAR’s longest race of the season.

Grandstand seats sold out earlier this week, and officials announced Saturday that all premium, reserved and standing-room-only seats have all been purchased as well. It will be the largest crowd for the Coca-Cola 600 since 2017.

“This being Memorial Day weekend, it is the biggest weekend in motorsports,” Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer for Speedway Motorsports, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

“And we love being the grand finale to the greatest day in motorsports, starting in Monaco and then Indianapolis and then Charlotte with the Coke 600.”

NASCAR the past few years has made multiple tweaks to its traditional schedule but the 600 has remained untouched. It’s 100 miles longer than any other event on the Cup schedule and tests teams from day-to-night during challenging changing track conditions.

“One of my goals is for our events, in particular the Coca-Cola 600, not to grow old, but to grow legendary,” Smith said. “And anybody who loves to go to events, you want to go to some of those legendary events that have been around for a long time.

“It’s been 63 years now, and the Coke 600 is now on our fourth generation of NASCAR fans. People have been coming to Charlotte Motor Speedway with their fathers and grandfathers and are now bringing their own kids. I think that is a really special thing for us.”

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CONFEDERATE FLAG

CMS track officials asked a vendor on a neighboring property to take down the Confederate flag he was flying this week — and the person agreed.

NASCAR banned Confederate flag at all events in 2020, saying it “runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry.”

Smith said when fans at tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports have flown the Confederate flag they have asked them the remove them and haven’t had any issues.

“People might think this is a big fight to keep it up, but it is really hasn’t been,” Smith said. “That says a lot about NASCAR fans and who our fan base is. ... When race fans come to a NASCAR race, we are all just NASCAR fans. We are not part of a political party or an agenda of any kind. It’s just enjoying a good time with family and friends and racing.”

TIRE CONCERNS

Goodyear has been dealing with a spate of flat tires in recent weeks, and the manufacturer said it stems from higher rear loads on the Next Gen car than what teams saw in previous Cup Series iterations.

“The balance of the Next Gen car is definitely shifted towards the rear of the car,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

Teams will utilize the same tire package seen at Darlington Raceway earlier this month and the right-side tire that has been used at Fontana, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

Teams will have 13 sets of tires for the Cup race, including 12 sets of stickers and one set of scuffs from qualifying.

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ROOTING FOR JIMMIE

All-Star race winner Ryan Blaney joked that he will be rooting for seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson to finish fourth Sunday at the Indianapolis 500 — behind fellow Team Penske drivers Scott McLaughlin, Will Power and Josef Newgarden.

“I will be rooting for Jimmie because it will be really special for him,” Blaney said. “Talking to him, he has been having a lot of fun up there and doing a pretty good job. I always make sure I watch to see how those guys are doing. ... I know he will appreciate that he gets to do that and he is very deserving to get to run the 500.”

REDDICK’S RUN

Tyler Reddick’s results have been inconsistent this season, but he’s still one to watch this weekend.

The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has posted top-10 finishes in both of his Coca-Cola 600 starts and has increased his overall speed this year. He has two runner-up finishes in his last five outings, but also three finishes of 30th or worse.

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MEMORIAL DAY TRIBUTE

Keeping with tradition, drivers will feature the names of a fallen soldier on the front of their car’s windshield for the Coca-Cola 600 as part of the Memorial Day weekend celebration.

“To race on Memorial Day and put a name on the windshield, I never quite feel fulfilled enough and that we’re doing enough,” said Ross Chastain, driver of the No. 1 Chevy. “We give their families just a few hours to watch auto racing and enjoy it. If it takes them away from their everyday life and the real world, that’s great that we can do that for them.”

ODDS AND ENDS

Larson is the 5-1 favorite to repeat at the Coca-Cola 600, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

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