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COLUMN: Hamlin Makes History To Cap Off Exciting Three-Race Sunday

Denny Hamlin Coca Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series Winner Charlotte Motor Speedway

CCONCORD, N.C. — Column/photos By Tom Baker — For a motorsports fan, the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend is one of, if not the biggest racing weekends of the year.  When I was young, that day meant going to see short track modifieds and supermodifieds in the Port City 150 at the Oswego Speedway and then coming home to watch the Indy 500, which was televised on a tape delay basis on ABC at that time in the 1970’s.  

More recently, it’s become the ultimate buffet of speed.  You can eat breakfast with F1’s majestic Grand Prix of Monaco, then have lunch watching the Indy 500 and enjoy a nice dinner during the four-hour NASCAR endurance test that is the Coca Cola 600. 

This year, I watched the F1 race and the first 50 laps or so of the Indy 500 at home before heading to Charlotte to cover the Coke 600.  The track plays the Indy 500 in the media center for us so we don’t miss any of the action in that event.  

Let’s reflect back across the day and talk about the highlights of each event and come up with a grade.  

F1 GRAND PRIX OF MONACO
Things got weird almost immediately in this race, as the race started in the rain but then was stopped when the rain got heavy.  Charles Leclerc was the early leader and looked like he was going to be hard to beat until his team’s pit strategy completely infuriated him and took him out of a top spot he would never regain.  Ferrari seems to be on a bit of a roll with regard to poor pit strategy and today was no different.  Though they would contend in the top five, they let the win get away. 

The win that slipped away from Ferrari ended up going to Red Bull.  Sergio Perez drove a magnificent race, as did his teammate Max Verstappen.  At the end, it was Perez taking the checkered flag for his first Monaco win. Carlos Sainz did gain Ferrari a runner-up finish with Verstappen holding onto third and Leclerc fourth at the stripe.  

The scariest moment of the race was a major crash by Haas driver Mick Schumacher – his second of the season.  Mick lost the handle and struck the barrier with such force that it broke the back end right off the car.  Team Manager Gunther Steiner was not impressed, saying that the team would “see how we go forward from here.”  

Personally, I think the team needs to stay with Schumacher at least for now, unless they can find a veteran racer like they did with Kevin Magnussen to replace him. This steam badly needs stability.  They also badly need speed.  Q3 is a good day in qualifying for Haas, and they are just starting to gain some credibility and make some progress after the mess that surrounded the firing of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.  Another change in driver could set the team back again, something they really cannot afford at this point in the season. 

My grade for the F1 race:  B

INDY 500
This is the race that I most look forward to on this day every year.  I absolutely love the 500.  The pageantry that comprises the pre-race is absolutely unmatched in motorsport, and maybe even in sport in general.  The atmosphere is electric.  350,000 people from across the world on the grounds and millions more watching on TV.  Like any other event, some 500s are better than others. 

This year’s race started out like it was going to be a ping ping match between Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and defending series champ Alex Palou.  The pair took off and led most of the first fuel cycle, trading the lead back and forth in order to save fuel.  The problem was, that strategy didn’t work out very well, as their miles per gallon wasn’t much different than other teams.  Eventually, Palou got bit when he got called to pit, and just as he was coming in, a yellow meant the pit was closed and he had to serve a penalty.  That ended his chances at his first 500 win. Dixon also had issues. 

It was a different pair of Ganassi teammates who would fight it out for the win at the end, as Marcus Ericsson bettered the efforts of Tony Kanaan to win his first 500 trophy.  The fifth CGR car, driven by seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson who was starting the race for the first time, ended up with heavy damage after a late-race crash.  Johnson’s left side tires dropped off the pavement just for a moment but that’s all it took to send him into the outside wall.  He was uninjured. I felt bad for Jimmie, because you never know if he will decide at the end of the year to return for 2023.  It was a valiant effort all month long for him at The Brickyard. 

Sage Karam had a crash on the final lap in this race, and was transported to the hospital for observation after he complained of “muscular skeletal soreness” according to a Dryer Reinbold Racing PR.  The team said he cleared all of the concussion protocols. 

Overall this race had a lot of drama and a lot of surprises throughout the 500 miles.  In addition to Johnson, rookies Callum Ilott and Roman Grosjean crashed out of the event as did popular Austrailan Scott McLaughlin.  Contender Colton Herta had issues with his backup car after a crash on Carb Day Friday and never was a factor.  Last year’s winner Helio Castroneves was also never in serious contention, which really surprised me.  Rookie David Malukas paid off Dale Coyne’s confidence in him with a super strong effort that had him running just outside the top ten all day long.  That kid has a boatload of talent and may be the next Colton Herta.  

My final grade for the 500 – B+.  

COKE 600
NASCAR’s pre-race for this event is always top-notch, and the emphasis on recognizing those who serve in the armed forces is amazing.  It’s always fun to talk to the troops in attendance and get their take on what often is their first experience at a race, let alone a NASCAR race.  One Naval officer from Queens, N.Y. told me he really didn’t understand the appeal of motorsports until he walked through the garage area today and saw the way the fans were dressed in drivers’ gear and how diverse in terms of age they seemed to be.  

“I’ve been to a super bowl,” he said.  “It was not nearly as intense four hours before game time as this is.  I can’t wait to see the actual race!”

The first of four stages of the race saw a lot of action throughout the field.  Bad luck for Spire Motorsports as both of their machines were damaged in separate crashes in the stage, with Josh Bilicki and Corey Laojiao both unable to continue.  Ryan Preece also ended up in a tangle with Chris Buescher and Preece retired for the evening.  But perhaps the most exciting moment for the fans came when Kyle Busch did a long slow spin. 

Busch didn’t hit anything but the fans absolutely roared! 

Meanies.  

Stage two saw Austin Cindric cut a tire and crash on lap 146.  The Penske No. 2 was out for the night. Teammate Ryan Blaney spun and caught the wall with the right rear but was able to continue.  Kyle Larson also spun his Hendrick Chevrolet but, like Wallace, was able to continue. Chase Elliott also had a spin.   Kyle Busch creeped slowly back through the field, while Team Trackhouse led the way for the majority of the stage.

The first half of the 600 saw 9 yellow flags, major tire issues, and Kyle Larson was briefly on fire.  Absolutely crazy! 

Stage three upped the intensity and also the calamity.  Ryan Blaney’s left side tires got off on the apron and he broke loose, collecting a lot of top contenders in a 600 “big one”. Kevin Harvick joined the list of top contenders who had a misunderstanding with the wall while running inside the top 15.  He sustained very little damage and was able to continue. 

By the time we got to the end of the stage, Larson was back up to third! 

Stage four started off with Tyler Reddick leading Chastain and Larson.  Suarez lost spots on pit road and fell to fifth behind Cole Custer.  

We had several more yellows and a major crash that saw Chris Buescher’s right front suspension collapse and dig into the ground causing him to flip several times and land on his roof.  He was not hurt.  

By the time there were 60 laps to go, Kyle Larson had come all the way back and taken the lead!  The question was whether he could stay there.  Chase Briscoe and Ross Chastain were hanging tough, with Denny Hamlin and Custer rounding out the top five.  Larson got the lead to over one second and then Briscoe started to close back in.  

With 25 laps to go, Briscoe had the lead down to a half-second.  His Stewart-Haas Ford was flying! 

But then when he caught him, he spun out trying to get past him! 

On the ensuing OT restart, Austin Dillon came from nowhere to make a move for the lead and ended up triggering a massive crash that eliminated several drivers including himself and left Denny Hamlin as the leader for the second overtime.  

Two laps and a battle with teammate Kyle Busch later, Denny Hamlin won his first Coca Cola 600.  

Every now and then, you get a race that will live on in infamy.  This race surely was one of those.  It was by far and away the most exciting race of the day, which is not normally the case.  

Hamlin ends up winning the 600 for the first time.  Kyle Busch, much to the chagrin of all those meanie fans I mentioned earlier, finished second.  Kyle Larson, after being on fire, being penalized on pit road, spinning out, recovering to take the lead, and then getting caught in the final big crash, ended up ninth.  

It was a warm night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  It was the longest 600 in track history.  Not one fan left until it was over.  

Why did I write so much more about the 600 than any of the other two races?  Because I was here, because it was the longest, and because it was historic! 

FINAL GRADE: Grading this one is easy.  A+. 

Now it is 12:20am Eastern, and I need a midnight snack.

Tom Baker is the founder and Senior Editor of Steering Wheel Nation.  His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the country for 36 years. He is the producer / host of four radio show/podcasts that can be heard on SteeringWheelNation.com.  Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @tombakershow.  

NASCAR Coke 600 Garage Area Charlotte Motor Speedway
Spire Motorsports Readies Corey Lajoie's Chariot Pre-race. - SWN Photos by Tom Baker