Jeff Burton wins Coca-Cola 600
Posted: Tuesday July 27, 1999 06:59 PM
CONCORD, N.C. (CNN/SI) -- There were two marathons contested Sunday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- NASCAR's longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600, and Tony Stewart's Indianapolis-Charlotte doubleheader.
Jeff Burton won the former, and it can be argued that Stewart won the latter. Winston Cup's most precocious rookie logged top-10 performances in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 before collapsing onto a gurney shortly after his second race.
But it was Burton who hogged the post-race spotlight. Having mastered the prerequisite dusk-to-dark track changes, he captured his third win of the season and eighth of his career, finishing ahead of closest-pursuer Bobby Labonte. Mark Martin finished third, while Stewart claimed an exhausted fourth.
"This crew won this race," Burton said in Victory Lane. "I'm so proud of this team. They kept their cool."
Stewart paid the highest price, driving most of the last half of the 600 while battling an upset stomach. He was wheeled on a gurney to the infield care center after battling Labonte for the lead as late as 100 laps from the end. He was unable to contend in the closing segment.
"I think he's OK. He just needs some fluids," said Joe Gibbs, who owns the cars of both Stewart and Labonte.
The 400-lap, 600-mile race usually confounds many teams because the track conditions change dramatically, but Burton was equally strong before the sun went down and after darkness descended.
Burton started second and led 49 of the first 64 laps while sunshine and 82-degree temperatures kept the track temperature at more than 100 degrees. His Ford Taurus remained robust as the sun gave way to a full moon and the track cooled into the 80-degree range.
His crew appeared to make minimal chassis adjustments on his car throughout the race. Whatever changes they made paid off big; Burton's victory was worth $1,212,500, including a $1 million bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
"This crew just kept working and working," Burton said. "They did it under pressure."
Burton wound up leading nine times for a race-high 197 laps on a night when several prominent drivers had problems.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his Winston Cup debut, started eighth but began sliding back almost immediately, then couldn't find his pit stall the first time he came in for fuel and fresh tires. He went one lap down before the race was 80 laps old, and was never a factor the rest of the way.
Rusty Wallace, a second-place finisher in each of the last two 600s, saw his chances of winning effectively ended by a fourth-turn tangle with Geoffrey Bodine on lap 106.
Defending series champion Jeff Gordon, bidding for an unprecedented third consecutive victory in the 600, ran into more misfortune in what already has been a difficult season. This time, a faulty steering pump sent Gordon behind the wall for lengthy repairs barely one-fourth of the way into the race.
The most disappointed driver, however, might have been Steve Park, who had by far the best run of his brief Winston Cup career before crashing while trying to avoid a slow lapped car that was running low on the track.
Park looked like the driver to beat, leading twice for 84 laps before he and Jeremy Mayfield made contact as they swerved up the fourth-turn banking to avoid the car of Kyle Petty on lap 240.
Park, running second at the time, went spinning down the frontstretch and slammed into the concrete retaining wall twice, severely damaging his Dale Earnhardt Inc.-owned Chevrolet. He was uninjured but crestfallen.
"I just can't explain the disappointment," said Park, who is in his second full season on the circuit and has yet to finish higher than 11th in a race. "It was the run of our lives."
Paul Andrews, in his first full week as Park's crew chief, tried to look at the bright side.
"Now they know what we have," Andrews said.
Park's wreck cleared the way for Labonte, Burton and Stewart to battle it out the rest of the way.
Stewart ran up front for four laps before Labonte powered past him on lap 270 as they went through the third and fourth turns. The pass cleared Labonte to start pulling away from the field, but he was far from out of danger.
On lap 325, he appeared to put himself in potential jeopardy when, heading toward the end of the frontstretch he sandwiched his car into a small opening between the lapped cars of John Andretti and Kevin Lepage. Labonte successfully completed the pass, but it brought the fans to their feet as they tensed to see if the move would create a wreck.
It didn't, but in the end, Burton saw to it that it didn't matter.
After all the leaders went in for their final green-flag pit stops between laps 372 and 381, Burton found himself in the lead, courtesy of a 17.3-second stop to change four tires and add fuel.
"We just had a great pit stop. It got us out in front," Burton said. "The pit crew got us out front and they won it for us."
Labonte passed him on lap 381, but Burton went down low three laps later and powered past as they went down the frontstretch. Burton was not challenged again.
"We changed tires and the car was extremely loose there at the end," Labonte said. "It just didn't go like we wanted to. That last set of tires got loose on me there for about five laps."
The first half of the race was a story of dominance for Park and Burton and one of frustration for Gordon.
Burton led 103 of the first 123 laps before giving way to Park, who had run up front for a grand total of one lap all season. But once he overpowered Burton, he gave a view of what was his team is capable of by keeping his Chevrolet up front for the next 46 laps.
Gordon, who already has failed to finish three races this season, looked like that total might climb to four when fluid and smoke began spewing from his Chevrolet on lap 123. Gordon, running third at the time, went to the garage to have the steering pump replaced, dropping him 39 laps off the pace.
"I don't know what's going on, but things aren't going our way, that's for sure," Gordon lamented. "I've never seen anything like this before."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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