New car renews grueling sense of NASCAR’s longest race

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The Coca-Cola 600 is a staple on the NASCAR calendar, no stranger to any veteran driver on the circuit.

But the demanding nature of the race evolved in recent years. As engine strength decreased to 550 horsepower and parts became more reliable, neither drivers nor vehicles were as challenged as they used to be.

To a degree, the toll on both driver and car may return in Sunday night’s rendition (6 p.m. ET, FOX).

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Teams are still learning how the Next Gen car reacts in different situations, especially returning with 670 HP after rigorous testing during the offseason. Certain strains on the vehicle are perfectly tolerated while others can lead to race-ending damage.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, will partake in this race for the 22nd time of his career. With resin laid onto the track for grip in addition to the natural obstacles provided by the car, Busch expects to be put to task Sunday night.

“The handling conditions (of) this Next Gen car and the temperatures this year will be difficult — more difficult than most years just because of all the newness with the car,” Busch said Saturday ahead of practice. “We only get 20 minutes of practice. At least the practice is during the race window. A lot of times we’d practice and it would be two in the afternoon or it’d be nine o’clock at night. And so I’m glad the practice is closer to race conditions.

“It’s just the Next Gen car has its challenges. And we don’t know what to expect with the traction spray and the way that it’s been racing.”

That alters drivers’ approaches to the race. The aggression required to wheel the Next Gen car effectively, Busch said, will “absolutely” make Sunday’s race a more physical contest than in prior years.

That stems from an observation raised by Denny Hamlin, Busch’s co-owner at 23XI Racing, who noticed he had to drive the car “extra hard, and it sticks better because it forces the tires into the track and your diffuser is lower,” Busch said.

“We’ve improved our car in the last month and I felt that at Darlington,” added the series’ most recent winner. “(I) literally was driving into Turn 3 way deeper than I ever have and it was sticking. And so now your trying to learn the feel of the tire drop off and overdriving and still having good lap times.”

As drivers find new limits, some trip over the edge, 2018 champion Joey Logano noted.

“This car doesn’t accept mistakes very well, where the old car you can overcook the entry a little bit, you slide up and it’s all right,” Logano said. “This thing, you get in there a little too hot and you swap ends pretty quick. You spin out, so I think you’ve got to keep that in mind. Physically, probably no more (taxing) than last year, but mentally I think it could be more challenging.”

With spins come cautions, and with cautions come a slower race.

“I think it has the possibility of being maybe the longest Coke 600 we’ve ever had, just considering how many more cautions we’ve had recently compared to the last few years, so I could see that changing some and being longer than normal,” Logano said. “But to me, you’ve got to prep for 700 miles and that way you’re still fresh at 600. You’ve got to think through that and, at this point, I’ve run quite a few of these Coke 600s, so you kind of know what’s coming.

“You know it’s long. You know it is, but it’s also what makes this race so special. It makes it a crown jewel event because it’s 600 miles. It’s different. It stands out. Everybody wants to say they’ve won it before and hopefully this is the year for us.”