Three big stories dominated the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. Jeff Burton in the #99 Exide Ford won the race and took home a Winston No Bull million-dollar bonus, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his Winston Cup debut, and Tony Stewart competed in the Indy 500 by day and the Coca-Cola 600 by night.
Pole winner Bobby Labonte in the #18 Interstate Batteries appeared to have the race in his pocket as he led the field for 93 laps on four occasions. Twenty-three lead changes and nearly four hours after the green flag dropped in this 600-mile race, Burton and Labonte played a game of high-speed checkers. Burton took the lead from Labonte with 16 laps to go by using Brett Bodine's lapped #11 Paychex Ford as blocking material to end a side-by-side battle for the final sprint. Slowed by more lapped traffic, Labonte was not able to catch Burton, who barreled through traffic as if the seas had parted. He beat Labonte to the finish line by 0.537 second.
The race came down to #99 Jeff Burton overtaking #18 Bobby Labonte with 16 laps to go. He
Mark Martin and the #6 Valvoline Ford reeled in a Third-Place finish, followed by an exhausted Tony Stewart in the #20 Home Depot Pontiac and Dale Jarrett in the #88 Quality Care/Ford Credit Ford. Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the #8 Budweiser Monte Carlo in his first Winston Cup race, qualifying a respectable eighth and finishing 16th. "Everything went good," Earnhardt said after the race. "We qualified good and practiced good and raced pretty decent."
Another high point of the night was Stewart, who pulled double duty in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. The crowd cheered as he arrived at the speedway and was greeted by Dale Earnhardt. "He came up to me before the race and said, `Glad you can make it on time,' and was joking with me about it," Stewart said. "He was the first guy to come up to me [after the race] as they were getting me out of the car and say `What's the matter, you feel a little tired?'" Stewart admitted he was very tired after nearly 1,100 miles of racing in one day. In a press conference, he said he felt like he had let the crew down in the last 25 laps of the race because he was so exhausted. Nonetheless, he brought home an incredible Fourth-Place finish at Charlotte and a Ninth-Place finish at the Indy 500, where he drove the #22 Home Depot Oldsmobile Aurora-powered Dallara.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his Winston Cup debut.
Back to Winston Cup, Jarrett's Fifth-Place finish was good, considering he was battling a loose setup. Toward the end, with 30 laps to go, his team went with a four-tire pit stop when many others were only taking two tires. That seemed to keep him competitive enough, but the lost time gave Martin an advantage out of the pits. Jarrett, however, is the reigning points leader in the Winston Cup point standings coming into this race and leaving it due to his nine top-five finishes.
Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte weren't the only drivers leading laps. Steve Park in the #1 Pennzoil Chevrolet turned on the juice and led a total of 82 laps, looking as if he was the new force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, some unfavorable forces "wreckoned" him midway through the race when some Speedy Dry and a close call with Jeremy Mayfield's #12 Mobil 1 Ford sent Park spinning. Park ended the day in 42nd. Jeff Gordon's #24 DuPont Chevrolet had to go behind the wall due to a bum power-steering pump gasket, leaving him to finish a disappointing 39th. Dale Earnhardt drove the #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet to Sixth Place.
Some bad luck has dropped Jeff Gordon to eighth in the standings.
Rookie Tony Stewart raced in the Indy 500 (where he's not a rookie) and the Coca-Cola 600.
Steve Park ran at the front and led the race until an accident took him out.