Tom Bowles
Friday May 28th, 2010

While the Indy 500 champ depends on raw speed, capturing the Coke 600 comes through survival of the fittest. The longest race on the NASCAR circuit, those extra 100 miles on parts and pieces historically made machine, not man, first priority, in the spirit of the old adage, "To finish first, you must first finish."

But tweaks in the rules combined with advances in technology are changing the game this Memorial Day weekend. No longer are drivers overly worried about mechanical failure, and the wave-around rule makes it easy to earn back lost laps. That makes patience, not perseverance, the top priority within the Cup garage, balancing that freedom to go full throttle with putting yourself in a bad position before the last 100 miles.

"It's quite different from how it was in the '80s," said 51-year-old Mark Martin, a former 600 winner who placed 12th in his first start in 1982. "Back in the day, it was a challenge to make the car run that long. You don't pace yourself [based on] your equipment anymore. It is still an endurance race, but much easier to conquer with today's stuff."

"It is action-packed for 600 miles," adds Greg Biffle. "It's a pretty tough, intense race. It takes a lot to get through it."

Action? Intensity? That tilts toward favoring a hard charger like Kyle Busch. But will Kyle have the mental focus to follow through Sunday night? That's key in breaking down four factors that'll make or break the Coke 600:

1) Will the Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin feud affect what we see on the racetrack?

Old Kyle, new Kyle, red Kyle, blue Kyle? You never can tell which one will show up these days, a multiple personality disorder evident one week after an on-track spat with Hamlin turned into a tabloid-style blowup that just won't die. Mixed messages were the theme of Busch's press conference Thursday, saying, "I feel like we can move on and work together" with one breath while reliving his "I want to kill Denny" moments with every other.

"You want to race each other the way you expect to be raced," he said, seemingly angrier with a perceived change in the way Hamlin chose to compete against him more than the incident itself. "You learn and race each other a certain way ... don't change it."

"[With Denny], the surprise factor hit me because that didn't happen. I wouldn't have expected [him to block me]. I don't think I typically run myself into the fence."

That wreck cost him a shot at $1 million, and considering this team dominated the 600 last year (only Mother Nature cost them a victory) it's crucial hurt feelings don't carry over. Someone just needs to tell that to Hamlin, who's fueled the fire by criticizing his teammate's supposed immaturity.

"Each year, I think Kyle's going to grow out of it and he doesn't," he claimed about his teammate's emotional streak. "Until he puts it all together, that's when he'll become a champion. Right now, he doesn't."

Questioning your teammate's mental toughness? Not exactly the way to build momentum. The key could be how willing Busch is to let this incident roll off his back, learning to tone down his aggression for the right time in the 600.

"He's been running these races at 1,000 percent," said brother Kurt. "It doesn't take 1,000 percent to win it."

I agree.

2) Roger Penske's chance to make history.

Penske's all-time record of 15 Borg-Warner trophies doesn't mean squat in stock car circles. An embarrassing 0-for-72 stat in points-paying races at Charlotte leave him still searching for one of NASCAR's crown jewels. But the team took a big step in the right direction Saturday, with Kurt Busch charging through the final 10-lap segment to take the All-Star Race's $1 million top prize. The Charlotte exhibition has them confident for a history-making Sunday: occupying three of the top four spots on the grid for the Indy 500, Penske could be the first owner ever to pull the vaunted Indy/Charlotte double if the Blue Deuce could follow through a second time.

"It's funny how many Memorial Day Weekend wins he has up in Indy versus what he doesn't have down in Charlotte," Busch said. "He's got the best opportunity, the best odds to do that [this weekend]. He deserves it."

Just expect Busch to be Penske's only chance. Starting second, he's light years ahead of Sam Hornish Jr. (14th) and Brad Keselowski, who crashed in qualifying and will start dead last in a backup.

3) Tires, temperature, and track position.

Ever since the Charlotte track changed its surface prior to the 2005 season, "levigation" has all but leveled Goodyear's ability to produce a perfect tire. The compound they have now is so hard, it's nearly impossible to run side-by-side during long green-flag runs.

"In defense of Goodyear, I don't think they have a solution," says Martin. "A softer tire would blister and fail. Part of the problem we have is the composition of the asphalt. This batch is a different animal."

It also puts the pressure on the crew chief. Harder tires mean less falloff over the course of a full fuel run, meaning teams can gamble on pit strategy and pull two or no-tire stops late in the race without much loss in speed.

"Track position is enough to overtake tires," adds Greg Biffle, changing the focus to another major obstacle for teams to stay in contention: the tricky transition from day into night. "This race track is real sensitive to temperature. It'll change two or three-tenths of a second with a cloud going by."

Translation: the leader at the halfway point could be buried in 20th by the time we hit the last 100 miles in total darkness. Hitting those adjustments right proves crucial, which falls right into the hands of ...

4) Charlotte is Jimmie Johnson's house.

With a career-best six victories in 17 starts, Johnson won four races in a row here at a track that was once appropriately named "Lowe's Motor Speedway." The No. 48 team took time to adjust to the repave, but finally put it all together with a dominating victory at the track last fall. Add in how Johnson would have coasted to an All-Star Race victory without the drama of the final ten-lap segment, and you can see why Sunday's fifth-place starter is my pick to end the night sitting in Victory Lane.

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