CONCORD, N.C. — There is one indisputable fact about the Coca-Cola 600.
As Kyle Busch put it on Thursday, “It’s a long-ass race.”
At 400 laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway, today’s 600-mile race is the longest event on the NASCAR schedule.
Cup drivers will attempt to survive its marathon length starting just after 6 p.m. ET, with the sun still up and temperatures hovering in the mid-90s. Unlike other races, there are three guaranteed cautions for stage breaks instead of two.
But the field is also full of veterans who have endured and conquered the 600. What advice would they give the newcomers to the 600?
“This race, for whatever reason, you just feel like you lose the most amount of weight and you get the most dehydrated from of any race during the year,” said Brad Keselowski, who will make his 10th start in the Coca-Cola 600. “It’s a very grueling challenge. It’s real easy to lose sight of the fact that there are so many laps to go. Don’t look at the scoreboard. … Because when you look up at the scoreboard and it’s Lap 100 and you see there are still 300 to go that can drag you down a little bit. So don’t look at that and stay hydrated and do the best you can.”
Kyle Larson put it in TL;DR terms: “Hydrate and don’t ask what lap you’re on.”
Busch, the defending 600 winner, focused more on strategy and when to drop the hammer for the final run to the finish.
“You can’t necessarily focus on your car handling for the first 300 miles and then you can kind of start to pay attention to it at mile marker 400 to 500 and then 500 on is where it all comes to play,” said Busch, who will make his 16th start in the 600. “That’s when business picks up. That’s when you need to be in position in order to put yourself in position for a final pit stop or the final couple of pit stops that’ll gain you track position and get you up in the position that you need to be in.”
Busch also had advice for a driver who finds himself mired in the middle of the pack early on.
“There’s really nothing to worry about,” Busch said. “You just try to stay on the lead lap. If you do go a lap down, you just try to stay one lap down because there may be an opportunity for you to get a wave-around or something with the stage breaks and stuff like that. You can’t get impatient and try to overdo it.”
When it comes to the early stages of the race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reiterated Busch’s advice, saying drivers “got to be patient” as the lap numbers rise and the sun sets.
“I think this race I’ve been good during the day and struggled at night, and then I’ve had cars where you kind of stayed the same throughout the whole night,” said Stenhouse, who made his Cup debut in the 600 in 2011. “I do think that with this package you’re gonna have a lot of comers and goers when the temperature changes, the sun goes down. … Don’t flip out too early.”
Tifft, who drives Front Row Motorsports’ No. 36 Ford, is going to take his first Coca-Cola 600 “one stage at a time.”
He’ll also be playing the “lap game” when it comes to keeping pace with the field, echoing Busch’s advise.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re on the lead lap or just one lap down at the end of that second stage (Lap 200),” Tifft said. “If you’re one lap down at the end of Stage 2, more than likely you’re gonna get a top-25 finish, so you just kind of play that game. … You just have to be able to go as hard as you can at the beginning of those stages and those restarts are so important that you focus on that and the good thing is once you’re kind of done with the job you have to do there, then you’re on the next segment of the race and you do it again. So that’s the easiest thing is just trying to focus on the short-term of where you’re at.”
Tifft admits the prospect of a 600-mile race is “daunting” but he’s been preparing with driver coach Blake Koch while also consulting active drivers about their preparation, including “hydration schedules.”
“They say to start hydrating a day earlier than what you normally would, especially with how hot it is, but the thing I keep hearing is people are wanting a snack during the middle of this race,” Tifft said. “So I’ll try to figure out a protein bar or something like that in the middle of the race to keep you going because it is so long.”
The 22-year-old driver said he’ll try not to get “wrapped up too much” in the length of the race.
“It’s just like the first 500-miler for the Daytona 500 that I did,” Tifft said. “You go and you go and you don’t stop until they tell you to.”