Move to shorten Coca-Cola 600 questioned

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

CONCORD, N.C. -- Ryan Newman stood in the garage, held out his hands and looked skyward. The rain had stopped, which made NASCAR's decision to halt the Coca-Cola 600 even more puzzling.

"It looks like it's stopped, and it's a 600-mile race, so it would seem to me we've got some more racing to do," Newman said. "But I don't get to make calls like that so I guess we'll just go home with what we've got."

What Newman got was a fifth-place finish in Sunday night's race, which was stopped after 276 laps and a brief, but heavy rain shower.

Jimmie Johnson was declared the winner after NASCAR called the race 186 miles before the finish, giving him a two-race sweep of the showcase events at Lowe's Motor Speedway. He also won The Winston on May 17, picking up a $1 million payday for that victory.

No one knows what might have happened had racing resumed.

Johnson thinks he was good enough to win -- no matter what.

"I don't want to say that we would have won, but we were going to be a contender regardless of what happened," Johnson said.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Kenseth a contender

Perhaps Matt Kenseth would have given Roush Racing its fifth consecutive victory in the longest race of the season, which is considered one of the crown jewels on the NASCAR schedule.

Instead, Kenseth was credited with a second-place finish and went home disappointed he didn't get a chance to race for the win.

"I sure wish we would have waited it out a little bit and had a shot at it," Kenseth said. "I'm real thankful and real grateful to finish second and to be with such a great race team, but the racer in me still wanted to race.

"I think for sure we had one of the three best cars out there and was counting on another 130 laps to try to have a chance at it."

When NASCAR called the race, president Mike Helton said it would take three hours to dry the track. Plus, the weather radar showed more rain on the way.

But three hours after the decision, Johnson was still making the celebratory rounds through the corporate suites at Lowe's Motor Speedway and the rain had yet to return.

"Unfortunately in some deals, Mother Nature wins," Helton said. "We did everything we could."

That was up for debate among the teams.

A unique schedule

The schedule for the Coca-Cola 600 is one of the more unique ones of the season. Qualifying is on Thursday and Winston Cup teams are not required to be at the race track on Friday, an extremely rare day off.

But it rained all day Thursday, and NASCAR sent the teams home with orders to come back Friday for a full work day. Early morning showers delayed the start of on-track activities on Friday, stretching qualifying day even further into the night.

So teams were puzzled when the sanctioning body quickly called an end to the actual race.

"I can't understand it," said Billy Wilburn, crew chief for Rusty Wallace. "We can spend an extra day to get qualified, but we can't wait another 15 minutes to see if we can get this race in? I feel like I've been cheated."

So did Robbie Reiser, Kenseth's crew chief, who thought they could challenge Johnson over the final stretch of the race.

"I'm kind of disappointed in NASCAR because I sat down here all day Friday trying to get these cars qualified in the rain," Reiser said.

It's the second time this season NASCAR has been criticized for pulling the plug on one of its premier events. The season-opening Daytona 500 ended early, but it rained for almost two hours and showed little signs of letting up when the decision was made.

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