The day before Memorial Day every year is deservedly billed as the single best day on the motor sports calendar, and in the United States that means the Indianapolis 500 to get things started, followed in the late afternoon and evening by NASCAR's longest race of the year, the Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600, held every year at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the heart of NASCAR country.
If you've ever been to one or both, you've truly experienced the best that open-wheel and stock-car racing have to offer. The Indy 500 has no rival insofar as open-wheel racing has to offer on domestic soil. The drivers and teams devote the entire month of May to preparation, technical adjustments, qualifying and team strategy discussions, all geared toward the opportunity to be among the 33 cars that line up on race day to compete with some of the best drivers in the world in what they call "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." And believe me, even that iconic description doesn't entirely do the event justice.
Later that same day, NASCAR takes the stage for its own endurance race, a 600-mile marathon by stock-car standards, that starts in daylight and ends under the lights, a difficult transition for any race car driver and one that presents multiple challenges as a result of the changing environmental conditions and what that does to the cars as well as the racing surface as the race progresses. The uncertainty of how the cars might perform in the warmer daytime hours and after the sun goes down and the air temperature and track temperature cools, and what adjustments are required to mitigate the difference, is what makes this particular Sprint Cup race such a dogfight and so dramatically different from start to finish.
Racing fans will remember the spectacular finish in last year's Indy 500, when the race leader J.R. Hildebrand unexpectedly hit the wall on Turn 4 in the final lap, allowing Dan Wheldon to overtake him and finish off what would be Wheldon's second and final Indy 500 victory. Several months later, Wheldon died in a fatal crash at Las Vegas Speedway.
The 2012 Indianapolis 500 was dedicated in Wheldon's memory and included a special tribute prior to the race. As it turned out, the race finish served as its own special tribute, as well. It couldn't have been more fitting that three of Wheldon's best friends, in and out of the racing world - Dario Franchitti, the 2012 500 winner, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanan - finished one-two-three in Sunday's race.
The remarkable and highly fitting finish brought these words from Franchitti: "Kind of like old times, the three of us back and forwards. I thought, ‘Dan is laughing at us right now going at it.'"
Franchitti's win was his third 500 victory, which places him in select company with six other former Indy 500 champions, including active driver Helio Castroneves. A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser have the most wins with four each.
Kanan, who has not won at the Indianapolis 500, said before the race that he was hoping to get his first win in this year's race so he could have his image embossed on the Borg-Warner Trophy, which goes to the 500 winner, between his best friend (Wheldon) and Franchitti, who last won in 2010 .
Franchitti and Dixon are teammates at Andretti Autosport. Kanan drives for KV Racing Technology, but once was part of the Andretti team.
In all, a very fitting end to the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500, which began with some very heavy hearts in memory of one of the best and one of its own.
The Sprint Cup race at Charlotte didn't have near the emotion attached to it, but it certainly didn't produce any less excitement. All season long, until two weeks ago at Darlington Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports was stuck on 199 career wins. The Hendrick stable of veteran drivers, which include five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon, had not taken a checkered flag for 16 consecutive race starts dating back to Kansas Speedway in October of last year.
Johnson finally broke the winless string for the Hendrick team, winning the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington. Johnson won again in the Sprint All Star Race, a non-points exhibition event held every year at Charlotte the week prior to the Coca-Cola 600. And Kasey Kahne, the newest of the Hendrick drivers, made it three wins in three race weekends for the team that couldn't buy a victory for over half a year with his 13th career win in the Sprint Cup Series and his first under the Hendrick banner.
Greg Biffle led more than half of the race, but most of that was in daylight conditions. When nighttime fell, the No. 16 car was no match for Kahne's No. 5 Quaker State Chevrolet. All four of the Hendrick drivers finished in the top 11 in Sunday's race at Charlotte (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was sixth, Gordon right behind in seventh and Johnson was 11th.
Kahne had just one race finish better than 29th in his first six Cup events this season, has now produced six consecutive top-ten finishes, a career best.
Kansas City hometown favorites Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer ended up in the top 20. For Edwards, from Columbia, Mo., his ninth-place finish had to have felt very good, given his start far back in the pack in 28th position. On the other hand, Bowyer, who hails from Emporia, Kan., started out fifth but ended up 13th.
Former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick made her third start of the year in a Sprint Cup race. Patrick, driving the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing started 40th in the 43-car field and moved forward 10 positions to finish 30th. This was her best Cup finish in the three races. She crashed and was knocked out of the season-opening race at Daytona and finished 31st two weeks ago at Darlington.
So far, Patrick appears to be following in the same footsteps of other recent IndyCar drivers (notably Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti, both Indy 500 champions) who have attempted the transition to NASCAR only to wind up with disappointing results and a lot of personal frustration.
Some other noteworthy numbers from this past weekend of motor racing:
Memorial Weekend Motor Racing By The Numbers
1 - Number of Indianapolis 500 wins by the legendary Andretti racing family. Mario Andretti won the race in 1969. Mario's son and Andretti Autosport team owner, Michael, and grandson, Mario, have never won at Indy.
3 - Number of wins for Dario Franchitti in the Indianapolis 500, all under caution.
6 - The driver with the most laps led has failed to win the Coca-Cola 600 in six of the last seven races, including this year.
8 - Kasey Kahne was the eighth different driver to win in the Sprint Cup Series in 12 races this season.
11 - Number of starts for Tony Kanan in the Indy 500 without a victory.
36 - Number of years since a female driver (Janet Guthrie in 1976) participated in the Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 race. Danica Patrick is the first female since Guthrie to compete in this annual race.
59 - Laps led by Marco Andretti in Sunday's Indy 500, the most of any driver. Andretti crashed his car very late in the race and finished 24th out of 33.
155.687 - Average speed in mph of Kasey Kahne, winner of the NASCAR race this past weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, over a distance of 600 miles.
167.734 - Average speed in mph of Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti over 500 miles.
34 - Number of record-breaking lead changes in this year's Indianapolis 500.
204 - Laps out of 400 led by Greg Biffle of Roush-Fenway Racing in the Coca-Cola 600, the most of any driver. Biffle finished fourth.
334 - In the 48 Coca-Cola 600 races at Charlotte that have gone the distance, the leader on lap 334 has gone on to win 27 times, but only four times in the past 13 years. Kasey Kahne was the leader on lap 334 in this year's race.
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