CONCORD, N.C. — Qualifying was easy-peasy for Jimmie Johnson.
Usually at the front of the pack, Johnson finally snagged his first pole of the season Thursday night, running a lap of 194.911 that will place him as the pack leader for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
That’s when the hard part kicks in — 43 drivers going round and round and round for 600 miles in the longest race of the NASCAR season.
Grab a Snickers bar, everybody. Or maybe a cup of coffee. This is going to take a while.
“No, there is no reason to have any race that’s this long,” Clint Bowyer said Thursday afternoon. “It’s a selling feature to have something longer than the rest — the biggest, baddest, longest race of the year — the most grueling. I understand the catch of having one race a year be drastically longer than the others, but that 400-mile race on these mile-and-a-half tracks seems to be a good number.”
There are all sorts of variables and logistics involved. Most notable is that the race starts shortly after 6 p.m. and ends late into the night, meaning substantial temperature changes. Sunday’s high is expected to hover around 83 degrees, with lows dipping into the low 60s.
Man and machine both will feel the pinch.
“The big thing you need to stay aware of is the track changing,” said Johnson, a six-time NASCAR season champion. “That’s the biggest issue that we’ll deal with starting in the day and finishing late at night. I think maybe toward the start of my career we were a little bit worried about equipment and managing equipment.
“But those all seem to be distant memories now and you can really run every lap like it’s the last. Drivers’ fitness and hydration is kind of a player in there as well and you might see a little bit of fatigue at the end. I feel like I’ve got that base covered if it does come down to that.”
Johnson should feel good about this. This has the feel of a “home game” for him, competing close to home in a track that used to be named after his primary sponsor (Lowe’s). Johnson has six victories, 12 top fives, 16 top 10s and four poles at this track. He’s won two of those races from the pole. No other driver has won from the pole here since 1998.
He will lead the field on Sunday, followed by Brad Keselowski, who qualified second, and then Kasey Kahne.
Johnson could use a home run here, frankly. Although he is seventh in points, Johnson has yet to win a race in a revamped format that places a huge premium on winning races in order to advance to the 10-race playoff schedule.
“If I’m winning, I win too much. If I’m not winning, it’s ‘Why aren’t you winning?’ “ Johnson said. “I can’t get it right. No matter what we do, I think we’re going to talk about the 48.”
Johnson’s advantage can get easily obliterated in a race that lasts about 4 ½ hours. Lot of things can happen between the start and the finish.
“I like the length,” said Marcos Ambrose, who drives for Richard Petty Motorsports. “I like the fact that it is different and the endurance factor certainly comes into play for the 600, so I like it. ... This is the last one standing, and I think it’s a bit of NASCAR history that should remain.”