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NASCAR Cup Charlotte

How NASCAR's longest race became a proving ground for rising stars

NASCAR's longest race has a habit of producing first-time winners, and more often than not, these drivers tend to go on to become some of the sport's biggest stars.

Jeff Gordon, Henrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing

Of course, it's a bit strange to think that inexperienced drivers seem to shine in this grueling five-hour race, but it's happened enough for it to become notable. At 600 miles, no other race gets close to the length (except for maybe the 2023 Daytona 500 which went 30 miles into overtime).

Born from the minds of Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner, the 1.5-mile asphalt oval known as Charlotte Motor Speedway is now the heartbeat of the NASCAR community with a majority of teams and drivers living within a short drive of the track.

The race was originally called the World 600 and ran its inaugural event in 1960. Its first victor was Joe Lee Johnson in the No. 89 machine. It wasn't his first win, but it was his last, winning the race by a margin of four laps. But let's take a look at the complete list of first-time winners and how they all managed to conquer NASCAR's longest race.

1961 - David Pearson

This NASCAR Hall of Famer would go on to win three championships and 105 races in a career that spanned nearly 30 years, but his first win came right at Charlotte in 1961. After starting third, he led over half the race in a dominant showing, beating Fireball Roberts by two full laps. His 105 career victories ranks second only to Richard Petty.

Now, Pearson's triumph in the second-ever running of the race appeared to be an anomaly at first. It would be 33 years until a first-time winner won the 600 again, but it was name every race fan now knows.

David Pearson 1979 NASCAR

David Pearson 1979 NASCAR

Photo by: NASCAR Media

1994 - Jeff Gordon

At just 22 years old, 'Wonder Boy' was piloting the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that he would later make famous. But at the time, he was still searching for his first career win. This race appeared to be Rusty Wallace's to lose but with the brilliant Ray Evernham on the box, he and Gordon proved to be a formidable duo. A call for a short two-tire stop allowed them to jump ahead of Wallace late in the running. He led just 16 laps but it was enough to claim his first Cup win.

Of course, we all know Gordon didn't stop there. The Hall of Fame driver went on to win 93 Cup races and sits just behind Pearson on the all-time wins list. He also won four Cup titles, eclipsing Pearson in that category.

Jeff Gordon, Henrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing

Jeff Gordon, Henrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade Photography

1995 - Bobby Labonte

We certainly didn't have to wait another 33 years for the next first-time winner in the 600. The very next year, another future Hall of Fame would make their mark with a victory in NASCAR's longest race. Ken Schrader was in control, but blew an engine late in the running. Bobby Labonte moved into the race lead and stretched the fuel to take the checkered flag. It was a Labonte 1-2 with his elder brother Terry finishing second.

Bobby went on to become the 2000 Cup champion, winning 21 races, and joining the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2020.

Bobby Labonte

Bobby Labonte

Photo by: Greg Gage

2000 - Matt Kenseth

The theme of first-time winners in the 600 going on to become NASCAR legends continued as the sport raced into the 21st century. Matt Kenseth, running fourth after the final restart, quickly marched forward with the cunning of a veteran driver. He passed Gordon, Earnhardt, and finally Labonte on Lap 373 of 400. He then held back Labonte as they navigated slower traffic, winning the race by just over half a second.

Kenseth won 39 Cup races throughout his career and was the final champion under the season-long points format in 2003. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame just last year. That's right. The first four drivers to get their maiden Cup win the 600 all went on to become Cup champions and members of the sport's Hall of Fame. 

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth

Photo by: Autostock

2007 - Casey Mears

This is where the trend started to shift a bit. Underdogs began to rise from the midfield and snatch this crown jewel victory for themselves. After a few years of struggle at Chip Ganassi Racing, Casey Mears, nephew of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, joined Hendrick Motorsports for the 2007 season. It was still a struggle for Mears and the No. 25 team, but the Coke 600 presented him with a unique opportunity. 

With everyone running on fumes, Mears watched as Tony Stewart pitted from the lead with just eight laps to go. Then Dale Earnhardt Jr. pitted from the lead, and Denny Hamlin the lap after him. With just six laps to go, Mears inherited the top spot. He peddled that car, hanging on to win the race with 9.5s advantage over J.J. Yeley. Those final six laps were the only laps he led during the entire race.

It was Mears' first trip to Victory Lane, and unlike the previous drivers on this list, it was also his last. He started 489 Cup races between 2003 and 2019, but that 2007 Coke 600 was his only moment of glory. 

Victory lane: race winner Casey Mears celebrates

Victory lane: race winner Casey Mears celebrates

Photo by: Motorsport.com / ASP Inc.

2009 - David Reutimann

The 2009 Coke 600 was plagued by bad weather and was already postponed to Monday. And then on lap 222 of 400, the caution flew for rain once again. David Reutimann was running 14th at the time of the yellow. Teams were closing in on needing to stop for fuel, so most the field decided to pit during the caution. Reutimann did not. He led five laps behind the pace car before heavy rain forced NASCAR to red flag the event.

The race never resumed, creating an upset win by both driver and team, as Michael Waltrip Racing had never won before either. It was an underdog story for the ages, but unlike Mears, Reutimann went on to win another race the following year at Chicagoland Speedway.

Victory lane: David Reutimann celebrates

Victory lane: David Reutimann celebrates

Photo by: Motorsport.com / ASP Inc.

2017 - Austin Dillon

The grandson of Richard Childress, Dillon was the first driver to pilot the No. 3 car in the Cup Series since the passing of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Similar to a decade earlier, the 2017 Coke 600 became an intense fuel-mileage race. Martin Truex Jr. had absolutely dominated the event, but he did not have enough fuel to make it to the end.

Several drivers tried and failed to make it to the end. Jimmie Johnson was leading with just two laps to go, but he also ran out exiting Turn 2 with about 2.25 miles left in the 600-mile race.

Dillon was now leading, but he had no room to breathe as both Truex and Kyle Busch were closing in fast. Even if he had enough fuel, there was a chance they might reach him anyway, but they did not quite get there. Busch crossed the line just eight tenths back of the No. 3, which carried Austin Dillon to his first career win after leading only the final two laps. Had that been a 601 mile race, the result would have looked very different.

Dillon is the only driver on this list who is still competing at the Cup level. He went on to win the 2018 Daytona 500, collecting another crown jewel. He also has victories at Texas Motor Speedway in 2022 and the summer Daytona race in 2023.

Race winner Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Race winner Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: NASCAR Media

Who's next?

Since Dillon's 2017 win, there have been no first-time winners in the Coke 600. In fact, the trend has shifted back towards the more experienced drivers. Nearly every Coke 600 victor after Dillon is now a NASCAR Cup Series champion, with the exception of Denny Hamlin, who holds the record as the winningest driver in NASCAR Cup Series history without a title.

Recent outcomes tell us that another veteran will likely take the checkered flag this weekend, but I believe we're due for another first-time winner. My pick would be Ty Gibbs, who has yet to win despite some very impressive performances. The 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion has already led 235 laps so far this year in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and sits seventh in the championship standings. He's certainly due for a trip to Victory Lane, and what better place than the Coke 600 to become a NASCAR Cup Series race winner.

Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, Monster Energy Toyota Camry

Ty Gibbs, Joe Gibbs Racing, Monster Energy Toyota Camry

Photo by: Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images

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