FOR DECADES, 500 miles was a magical distance in racing. An event was considered big time if it was 500 miles.
When H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler ran Charlotte Motor Speedway, he decided his track needed something special to compete with the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. Charlotte had hosted the World 600 for years, competing directly against Indy. In 1993, the race started running the later on the same day as the Indy 500.
The 600-miler at Charlotte is unique because it is NASCAR's longest race. For several years though, I've thought the 600 is too long: how many fans at Charlotte and those watching on television can stay with a 600-mile race? The most recent Coca-Cola 600 began about 6:20 p.m. Sunday and ended near midnight.
With NASCAR trying to appeal to younger fans, many of whom have the attention span of Twitter's 140 characters, asking them to follow a 600-mile race is like requiring the reading of Chaucer during a weekend.
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson thinks it's time to think about adjusting the 600.
"I'm not sure [going] from 600 to 500 changes things much," Johnson said on a Tuesday conference call. "It wouldn't hurt, from the mindset of keeping your fans captive on television or at the venue for however long. I do understand the history of the 600, and it's been one of my better races. So I'm torn personally on how I'd want that to go.
"But as we look around, times have changed. And to have the fans' attention for, I don't know, a 6- to 8-hour period is kind of hard to do. So, in light of that, sure, we should consider not only the 600 but a lot of races.
"We can change our format altogether and create a really action-packed 4- to 6-hour time frame and completely revamp things. So I think we need to keep an open mind as a sport and make sure we change with the times, so we don't get passed up as things move forward."
Count Ty Norris among those opposed to shortening Charlotte's 600-miler. Norris is executive vice president of business development and general manager for Michael Waltrip Racing. He's in his 23rd year in NASCAR.
"I think the Coca-Cola 600 should be 600 miles, the Daytona 500 should be 500 miles and the Southern 500 [at Darlington] should be 500 miles, and everything else should be 300 to 400 miles," the Smyrna, Del., native said yesterday.
"Some of the best races we have are the shorter races. Ultimately, we have to decide if we're a television event or a live event. As a television event, 4 1/2 to 5 to 6 hours is hard for people to dedicate their day to [except for the three races he mentioned]."
As they say in TV, stay tuned. If Fox, which televises the 600, decides the distance is too long, we can expect it will request a meeting with the Charlotte Motor Speedway folks. TV networks usually get what they want.
Jimmie Johnson heads to Dover International Speedway this weekend tied with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the most wins at the Delaware track: seven. Johnson has won four of the last eight races at the Monster Mile.
"I feel good about things," said Johnson, who leads Carl Edwards in the standings by 32 points. "I feel like our mile and a half stuff we've been really a top-five car. Our short-track stuff and super speedway stuff we've been a winning car. With the mile-and-a half occupying so much of the year, and especially the Chase, we have a little bit of room for improvement there.
"But the points lead is huge, and I'd love to keep it that way and roll on into Richmond or the races before Richmond with that kind of points lead, so we can lock in [first place]."
Richmond hosts the last race before the Chase, the Federated Auto Parts 400, on Sept. 7.
Asked whether this year has a championship feel, Johnson said: "Every year has its own feel to it. It's still so early, I can't draw a conclusion to a year yet. It's nice to get off to a quick start. I always try to check some boxes, win a race is a huge one, win a pole [is] another one. We need to stay aggressive and keep working hard and see once we get close to September what we have for everybody."
After winning a record five consecutive titles, he was dethroned by Tony Stewart in 2011. Brad Keselowski won last year's Chase.