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.