It was not your average NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Sunday night. The Coke-Cola 600, already the longest event on the calendar, was pushed even deeper into the North Carolina night by two red flags so that in the end the time from green flag to chequered was more than five hours; and felt, at times, even longer than that. Certainly some of the episodes made it feel as though sleep deprivation was making the whole affair increasingly surreal...

The drivers already knew they were in for one of the most gruelling and punishing days of the year even as polesitter Denny Hamlin led the field to the start at just before 6.30pm local time just as the floodlights were taking over form the dwindling light of the setting sun draping long shadows over the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Hamlin led the first half dozen laps but after that, despite continuing to run strongly, his time at the front was over for the night and instead it was his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Matt Kenseth who took over control of the race. Kenseth was to be one of the two dominant drivers of the night, leading in all some 112 of the 400 laps; that was exceeded only by Hendrick Motorsports' Kasey Kahne, who led for a grand total of 161 laps during the extended event despite having reported for work suffering from flu-like symptoms that had required him to load up on fluids through an IV before the race. If this was Kahne feeling under the weather, then God help the field when he's feeling really chipper.

The first caution didn't materialise until lap 70 for debris, and the second waited until Casey Mears hit the wall in turn 4 on lap 114. So far nothing unusual, but the next caution on lap 123 was another matter altogether. Officially listed by NASCAR as 'debris on the frontstretch' it was actually one of the cables used to control the television camera that moves over the track that had become detached and fallen into the path of the cars. The cable had been caught and whipped up by the cars as they ran over it. The repercussions were serious, with extensive damage being done to the cars involved and the cable also being thrown into the spectator area causing minor injures to ten fans seated in the affected area. Seven were quickly treated for minor bruises and scrapes in the in-field care centre while three others were sent to local hospital, but none were kept in overnight.

The cars didn't get off so lightly, and NASCAR knew it had to take the matter seriously as the damage had been caused by an outside agency - FOX Sports, in this case. In other circumstances where cars have been torn up by debris getting onto the track, the official line has been to shrug and say 'Too bad'; but this time the officials red flagged the race to clear the cable and to examine the affected cars, which included Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin and the #18 of Kyle Busch, who had just assumed the race lead at the previous restart. Rather than following standard Sprint Cup race regulations by forbidding crews to work on the cars under the red flag, NASCAR announced an unprecedented 15 minute 'free for all' where everyone could do anything needed to get the cars back up and running before the race restarted with the running order as it stood before the cable breakdown.

That was a lucky escape for Kyle Busch, who wouldn't have been able to continue without the hiatus to work in. As it was, he resumed in front half an hour after the original stoppage and went on to lead for 65 laps in total, looking one of the strongest cars and a definite rival to Kenseth and Kahne provided the heavily patched-up vehicle could stay out of trouble for the rest of the day. Unfortunately that proved too much to ask for, and on lap 257 Busch exited the race with terminal engine failure.

"I commend NASCAR first of all for taking the initiative and letting us all repair our damaged cars from the issue that we had earlier in the race," Busch said after he'd parked the #18 for the night. "But from there I thought we were about a fourth- or fifth-place car.

"We had been running first, second or third most of the evening, but just catastrophic engine failure; it seems to be that time of year again. I hate it for all my guys. They worked too hard, and they always do," he said.

The next major incident came hot on the heels of Busch's exit from proceedings. The #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. was also suffering an engine apocalypse and had started sending out smoke and oil distress signals; the sudden loss of power together with the visual aids of impending doom caught out the drivers behind who happened to be Greg Biffle, Dave Blaney and Travis Kvapil and the whole thing ended up in a messy conflagration. Earnhardt was done, and the front end of Kvapil's #93 more closely resembled an accordion than a sensible car design.

"I smelled something burning," said Earnhardt later. "I thought it was rubber build-up on the headers or something. I didn't start losing power until the last lap before it broke with the water and oil mixing together; and that's never good.

"We had a massive catastrophic failure in the motor," he summed up. "We never have those problems: Hendrick guys always build good stuff not worried about this down the road we will be all right."

Kenseth and Kahne were still at the front for the restart following pit stops, with Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano making up the remainder of the top ten for the time being. The race managed to push past the three-quarter mark before a couple of debris cautions midway through a cycle of pit stops temporarily mixed things up, with championship leader Jimmie Johnson especially compromised by missing lugnuts on the #48 that forced him back onto pit lane to attend to.

The race had only just restarted when an accident in turn 3 caught up reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski and fan favourite Danica Patrick; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had also been running three-wide with them at the time but escaped any damage to the #17 Roush Fenway Racing car - which was more than could be said of Keselowski's ride, which was a torn-up mess.

"I was three-wide with Danica and didn't know it and I cut her off and wrecked her and myself," said Keselowski, taking full responsibility. "I feel bad for her and I send my apologies to her."

There was worse to come shortly at the restart on lap 324, when seven cars got caught up in a wreck on the front stretch - among them Aric Almirola, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. again. The debris was so extensive that NASCAR was forced to resort to a brief red flag lasting almost ten minutes to attend to the clean-up.

Kurt Busch expected to be leading at the resumption, only to find to his horror that the #78 Furniture Row Racing's battery was dead when he attempted to fire up again, forcing him to dive to the pits for urgent remedial attention. That left Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick in control of the restart, which ended in a mess when Jimmie Johnson spun out while battling side-by-side for position with Martin Truex Jr., sparking a number of sympathy wrecks around them including Juan Pablo Montoya hitting the outside wall in turn 4. Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Paul Menard were also caught up in the fall-out. When Kenseth along with Johnson then got handed penalties for coming in for service before pit lane had been reopened, their hopes for the race win this time around were effectively over and it was damage limitation mode for the rest of the night.

Kasey Kahne took over the lead from Harvick at the restart and still looked the man to beat as he pulled out a three second lead over Harvick; Joey Logano and Ryan Newman were in hot pursuit, and Kurt Busch had recovered from his battery problems to climb back into the top five with 50 laps to go.

"We had the lead, we had clean air and we had a fast race car, but when the battery went dead that pretty much doomed our chances of winning this race," said Kurt Busch after the race finished. "But give credit to this Furniture Row Racing team for fighting back. The battery was replaced quickly and the pit stops tonight were solid."

A final round of scheduled pit stops cycled through, and with 18 laps to go Kahne had just been reinstated into the lead with his huge lead intact when - with a certain leaden inevitability - there was a perfectly timed debris caution to close the field up and set the stage for a final showdown ending to the night's racing. Kahne assumed that few of his rivals on the lead lap would be giving up track position for fresh tyres, so he duly stayed off pit road when the time came; only to realise with horror as he watched his rear view mirror that everyone else was making the contrary decision. When the race restarted, Kahne would be alone in running on worn tyres while everyone else was packing fresh rubber for the occasion.

Sure enough, he was a sitting duck when Harvick made his move at the restart. Kahne did well to hold off the rest of the train of cars - testament to just how much better the #5 had been over the rest of the field all night. But there was nothing he could do about the new leader of the race, and could only watch with dismay as Harvick streaked away and clinched the win at the line by a final margin of nearly one and a half seconds.

"We just thought there would be at least a couple of guys would stay out," Kahne admitted of that crucial miscalculation under the final caution. " I think two or three had just pitted within five or eight laps of there. We thought they would stay out and that would be enough to get away. But the whole field pitted so we just didn't expect that.

"We had a great Time Warner Cable Chevy all night long, we were in the hunt from the drop of the green. It was a solid night. Wish we could have won it," he sighed. " I felt like we were definitely the car to beat the last 200 laps, maybe the whole race at times. It was solid. It was a great performance by the whole team and the pit stops were awesome. We just didn't get the win."

Harvick of course was thrilled by pulling off the win for RCR, the team he is due to leave at the end of the current season in order to join Tony Stewart's team. Not that his impending departure seems to be affecting the race-winning chemistry he enjoys with Childress and current #29 crew chief Gil Martin.

"I want to just say thank you to all the guys at Richard Childress Racing," said Harvick as he celebrated in victory lane. "To win at Charlotte is something that we had to overcome for a long time. We kind of won it on gas mileage last time, and we just went and won it this time."

Kurt Busch held on to take third place at the line, ruing what-might-have-been if not for that battery issue that cost him the race lead at a crucial juncture. He finished just ahead of polesitter Denny Hamlin who despite still recovering from his lower back injury sustained before Easter at Fontana seemed to have weathered the most gruelling race of the year without any setbacks.

"I feel good. Definitely feel a lot better after this one - I did Darlington - really feel the same as I do after any other race," Hamlin said. "Proud of our effort. We didn't a have a winning car, but we had a fourth to sixth-place car and that's where we ended up."

Joey Logano and Ryan Newman slipped back slightly in the closing laps but still finished in fifth and sixth respectively, while Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Marcos Ambrose received the spoils of finishing in the top ten as reward for managing to side-step the marathon night's trials and tribulations. Carl Edwards finished just outside in 11th place, but with Jimmie Johnson ending up five laps off the lead in 22nd place after his spin it meant that Edwards had managed to close to within 32 points of the championship leader.

By the time the race finished it was nearly midnight, and everyone was relieved that it was finally over and that they could use the Memorial Day public holiday in the US for a long lie-in. Fortunately next weekend's race at Dover International Speedway - the Monster Mile - should be a rather more normal affair without camera cables dropping from great heights; although with NASCAR you never can tell what's going to drop out of the blue next and trigger the next bout of consternation.

Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.


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