Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the longest race on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar and held on Memorial Day weekend, a holiday to honour fallen American service members. Fittingly, race winner Brad Keselowski is a dedicated military supporter and traditionally celebrates by waving the American flag. The 2012 champion moved from the back to hold off seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in overtime to score his first 600 victory.
Kurt Busch started on the pole, his first since 2018 and first on the Charlotte oval, ahead of Johnson. Keselowski, Aric Almirola, J.J. Yeley, and Timmy Hill were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, while Matt DiBenedetto switched to a backup car after hitting the wall in qualifying.
Denny Hamlin, who won on Wednesday, quickly saw his race fall apart even before the green flag waved. During pace laps, a tungsten ballast fell out of his car, forcing him to pit. A severe safety risk to other drivers, his crew chief, car chief, and head engineer face four-race suspensions. Joey Gase hit the ballast, causing him to quickly lose momentum on the field before pitting; he was eventually slapped with a penalty for having too many crewmen over the wall.
Once again, rain proved to be NASCAR’s greatest nemesis when it struck on lap 50 and resulted in a red flag. Prior to the delay, Busch had led every lap, while Johnson found himself sinking after the lap 25 competition caution when he got loose and fell out of the top ten.
The race returned to yellow-flag conditions after over an hour of waiting and track drying. Much of the field pitted under caution, with Alex Bowman changing two tyres to take the lead; he was thirteenth when he hit pit road.
Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. led the field to the race resumption on lap 57. His Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Chase Elliott quickly pounced on Truex to claim second. By lap 60, all four Hendrick drivers ran in the top ten.
On lap 86, Ryan Blaney collided with Christopher Bell, causing the latter to slide in turn three but was able to avoid spinning his car. No caution was called for the save.
With three laps remaining, Clint Bowyer slammed into the turn two wall, leading to the stage ending under yellow. His #14 car caught aflame, from which he was able to get out, though he was visibly shaken by the wreck.
As the stage concluded under caution, Bowman took the green-checkered flag ahead of Truex, Elliott, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Johnson, William Byron, and Kurt Busch. The stage points recipients included every Hendrick driver and both Richard Childress Racing members.
Bowman and Kyle Busch comprised the front row for the start of Stage #2. Truex eventually moved up to second as the field organised into single file.
On lap 125, Bubba Wallace exited the race with a left front hub issue.
As the stage crossed its halfway point at lap 150, various drivers began pitting under green. Truex pitted from second on lap 158, while Bowman and third-placed Logano did so a lap later. On their stops, Matt Kenseth and Quin Houff were slapped with speeding penalties.
Johnson inherited the lead when Bowman pitted and stayed out until lap 163; he opted to switch two tyres. John Hunter Nemechek and Ryan Preece spent time in front before they went to the pits. After Preece pitted, his JTG Daugherty Racing partner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. briefly enjoyed the top slot before being passed by Bowman on lap 166. Stenhouse hit the pits shortly after.
Bowman ran unopposed to his second stage win ahead of Truex, Busch, Byron, Elliott, Jones, Logano, Dillon, Blaney, and Johnson.
Former crew chief Cole Pearn praised Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives, describing the decision to change two tyres in Stage #1 as the “call of the race so far” and remarking that “TV isn’t stroking Greg Ives off enough for that 2 tire call.”
With the race at the halfway point, NASCAR ordered the field to pit road and held a brief moment of remembrance to commemorate Memorial Day. As part of the occasion, every car sported such personnel’s names on the windshield banner, while some also raced with special paint schemes. Goodyear also provided tyres with new “Honor and Remember” lettering for the race.
“Our night’s not going all that well,” Wood Brothers Racing, who fields the #21 for DiBenedetto, tweeted. “This moment of silence and what it represents puts it all into perspective and suddenly a 23rd 1L down isn’t all that bad”.
Bowman maintained his lead to open Stage #3 alongside Truex, while Busch was the second out of the pits before being tagged with a speeding penalty. Elliott had to pit again to remove a rear spring rubber, while Wallace rejoined the race in time for the green. The latter eventually went back to the garage, followed by returning 100 laps down.
On lap 225, Truex took the lead when he capitalised on Bowman being busy attempting to pass the lapped Gase. With clean air playing a major role, he began to pull away from Bowman. Jones eventually passed Bowman for second.
Meanwhile, Newman pitted to change his battery, dropping him down four laps. Yeley—driving for Cup returnee Tommy Baldwin Racing—also retired from the race for damage reasons, while Daniel Suárez and Stenhouse were penalised for speeding on pit road.
On lap 277, Kenseth hit the turn two wall to bring out the caution. Logano, Kevin Harvick, and Elliott stayed out, while Truex and a number of other leaders took two tyres on their stops.
Unlike other restarts, the leader Logano elected to start on the top lane. On Reddit, Xfinity Series driver Chase Briscoe expressed his surprise that the 600 had been “so bottom dominant” up to this point; using 2019’s race as a reference, he noted the track’s PJ1 compound was “really solid” which prompted drivers to start on the outside like Logano.
The strategy move worked to his advantage when he received a push from Truex. Elliott quickly lost momentum and fell out of the top ten.
Logano would go on to win the stage. Bowman, Blaney, Johnson, Truex, Busch, Jones, Keselowski, Dillon, and Byron rounded out the top ten.
With Truex’s lap 225 pass being the lone lead change under green in the stage, criticism was aimed at the package for its overly-rewarding aerodynamics to the leader.
“Joys of clean air, first car to stay out wins stage,” Pearn tweeted. “Other 2 cars finish the last 2 cars on the lead lap. Only works if you get the lead.”
DiBenedetto replaced two tyres on his stop to take the lead when the final stage commenced. He restarted on the outside with Logano beside him, though Logano dropped off in turn four as Truex pushed DiBenedetto ahead before passing him for first. As Logano sank, he nearly collided with Team Penske ally Blaney but was able to avoid a wreck.
Truex and DiBenedetto battled for the lead with Johnson and Bowman in tow, briefly isolating the top four from the field. DiBenedetto would lose the position to Truex before beginning a downslide with the Hendrick duo passing him. Five laps into the stage, Kurt Busch pitted for a loose wheel.
Clean air continued to reign supreme as Truex distanced himself from Johnson and the field. At one point, he had an advantage of over 2.6 seconds on the runner-up.
On lap 348, Gase spun through the tri-oval grass while trying to pit, producing the seventh yellow flag of the race. Johnson and Keselowski led the pitters out, with Kyle Busch gaining five positions with his stop. Logano suffered a speeding penalty and dropped out of the top ten.
The green flag waved with 47 laps remaining. Keselowski, who restarted on the inside, cleared Johnson for the lead exiting turn two, while an attempted move via lower groove by the #48 failed as his Hendrick team-mate Elliott instead overtook him for second.
Elliott chased down Keselowski and took the lead on lap 363. With ten laps to go, Newman retired with another battery issue.
The Georgia native was en route to his first win of the year when Byron’s right-rear tyre went down on the penultimate lap, causing him to spin and sparking a yellow.
To the surprise of many on social media, Elliott pitted prior to overtime. On the other hand, other leaders like Keselowski and Johnson chose to stay out.
Over the radio, Elliott was livid.
Keselowski opted for the inside line to begin overtime. Receiving a push from Bowman, Keselowski cleared Johnson in turns three and four.
Johnson was unable to catch Keselowski as the latter scored his first win of 2020 and his maiden 600 victory. Despite falling short, Johnson recorded his first top-three run since the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400. Elliott scrambled to finish third.