It's a mind-numbing proposition to drive in circles for 600 miles. Yet that is the task at hand when Lowe's Motor Speedway, the 1.5-mile track just north of Charlotte, hosts the Coca-Cola 600 each Memorial Day weekend.
It is the longest stock-car race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season. On an exceptionally brisk pace, when the race is slowed by few wrecks and few caution flags, it still takes four hours to complete.
During a 15-year career in NASCAR's top division, Rusty Wallace has seen drivers run the 600's first 450 or 500 miles with great focus and determination, then suddenly hit the wall. Through their experience and his own, Wallace has developed a philosophy for dealing with the tedium of the race and staying sharp for four-plus hours, as 42 other cars slice and dice at 185 mph.
"The biggest thing you need to do here," Wallace said, "is you've got to stay on the lead lap and just be competitive. As far as being out there racing side by side, knocking the fenders off and going like hell, you don't need to do that here.
"What you do in the 600 is, you've got to keep yourself in the lead lap -- preferably in the top 10 -- and log the laps. Log laps, log laps, log laps. You aim for the same crack in the asphalt every lap out there."
Sure, there are moments of drama along the way: at the start, in particular, and on every re-start. Pit strategy plays a huge role, with the decision about whether to take two or four tires on the final stop proving critical, more often than not.
But the biggest trick for drivers and their teams is adjusting the cars to the conditions of the track. That's because the Lowe's track, which veteran racers refer to as "moody," changes dramatically over the course of a race -- particularly in a race that starts shortly before dusk, at 6:15 p.m., when the surface is hot, and ends well after 10 p.m., after the track has cooled.
If this afternoon's Auto Parts 300 Grand National race is any indication, it may be a long night. The race was run in the mid-afternoon sun, and the heat sent track temperatures soaring to 139 degrees. That, in turn, made the asphalt slick as ice and sent cars caroming into the wall and one another. The race was slowed by eight cautions for 41 laps.
"I've never seen it slicker since we've run radials," said Mark Martin, who edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 0.587 seconds for the win.
Martin predicted the track will be even more slick for the start of the 600. An impatient driver won't be around for long under those conditions, which call for tiptoeing through the steeply banked corners.
"The first little while, it will be a slippery race track if the sun's out like this," Martin said. "But then, going into the night, by 10 o'clock or 9:30, it'll be starting to do its Jekyll and Hyde on us. Late in the race, teams will be faced with a tremendous challenge to keep up with the changing conditions."
Among the adjustments teams make to improve a car's handling are changing the air pressure in the tires or switching to stiffer springs or shocks, which affect the suspension.
Bobby Labonte will start his Pontiac from the pole. One of the best at high-speed, high-banked superspeedways such as Lowe's, Labonte seems to grow more at ease the faster his car goes. That knack makes him a favorite to add a second Coca-Cola 600 trophy to the one he won in 1995.
Only one Pontiac team has won the Winston Cup championship in NASCAR's modern era, and that was a decade ago, when Wallace edged Dale Earnhardt by just 12 points for the 1989 title.
Labonte sits third in the standings, well-positioned nearing the season's halfway point to make a run at the title. His car owner, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, has worked eight years to get his team in this position, and he's savoring the moment.
"We've proven, with the exception of maybe the first year, a team that can win races," Gibbs said. "But we weren't consistent enough all year at every kind of track to really be a serious contender for a championship."
So far this year, however, Gibbs's No. 18 Pontiac has done well on flat tracks, banked tracks, restrictor-plate tracks and short tracks. Labonte has won three poles and posted top five finishes in his last three races.
"I think it's by far our best chance to win a championship," Gibbs said this afternoon. "I think we're at a point where we have been real consistent every week, and I think that gives you a chance."
CAPTION: Coca-Cola 600 pole sitter Bobby Labonte, signing autographs, excels at the conditions needed to master the 1.5-mile, high-banked track in Concord, N.C.