Ready Weather Or Not

CONCORD, N.C. – Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, the 12th points-paying race along the 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup schedule, is the longest race of the year in both distance and time required to reach that mark.

"It's the ultimate challenge," offered Miller Lite Dodge driver Rusty Wallace, whose overall career record at the Concord, N.C., track sports two wins, eight top-five finishes and 20 top-10 finishes in 44 races to date. "When you look at it from a sheer distance standpoint, it's about saving your stuff for that final extra 100 miles and being the strongest at the end.

"But when you throw in the fact that we start the thing late in the afternoon and race on into the night, there's just no other such animal to tame out there. Winning the 600 calls for you to be on top of the game from so many directions. You gotta' pretty much be a chassis man, weatherman and have a little Houdini thrown in, too."

The 600-mile, 400-lap battle around the 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway has averaged requiring almost four hours and 15 minutes (4:13:07) to contest that distance over the last five years. The race was cut short to only 276 laps (414 miles) last year due to weather conditions. According to Wallace, who won the 600 back in 1990 and who finished as runner-up four times (1988, 1994, 1997 & 1998), this race tests drivers and teams like no other event.

"Things change so much from when we get the green flag at almost 6 p.m. and when the checkered flag is flown almost four-and-a-half hours later," said Wallace. "There is such a big transition, the track is so temperamental and it's such a challenge to stay on top of it all."

Wallace is right on the money when it comes to noting how much can change during that time frame in a typical day in Concord, N.C. Take for instance the weather conditions for Sunday, May 23 at the track – exactly a week prior to this weekend's 45th annual running of the spring racing classic. At 5:30 p.m., the temperature was 90 degrees under partly cloudy skies, with the wind out of the southwest at 9 mph. An hour later, a thunderstorm moved through the area and dropped the thermometer down to 81 degrees and the wind was gusting from the west at 18 mph. At 7:30 p.m., it was down to 68 degrees and the humidity up some 45 percent since the start of the race. The temperature climbed back to 70 degrees and stayed there for the next two hours and the wind was calm.

"That just shows you what you can be up against when dealing with the elements during a normal race there, doesn't it?" Wallace responded when that weather scenario was brought to his attention. "Charlotte (Lowe's) is probably the most temperature-sensitive track we run on and those changes in the atmosphere can be ultiplied when it comes to how it all affects the racetrack."

According to Wallace, how teams deal with that myriad of environmental changes is where the Houdini part of the equation may fit in.

"It's pretty much a situation of making an educated guess of what you need chassis-wise to handle it all," said Wallace with a chuckle. "We'll all put our heads together and see what our crystal ball comes up with. The biggest and most important thing is to be adjustable. Your setup has to be one that's flexible enough to allow you to make the necessary adjustments throughout the race. You have to have an engine that's durable enough
to last that long and endure all of the weather changes. The team that wins will be the one that best stays on top of the situation all race long."

Wallace and his Larry Carter-led team will be racing their PRS-71 chassis this weekend at LMS. It was last raced at Texas on April 4, where Wallace finished fifth. The car will continue to carry the special "Vote Miller For President Of Beers" color scheme that debuted at California and was used in last weekend's "All-Star" race.

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