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Track modifications hope to put competitive spin on Coca-Cola 600

What does Martin Truex Jr. do when the pursuit of perfection becomes redundant?

The odds will be overwhelmingly against him in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night. Truex led 392 of 400 laps last year, setting a record for miles led in a NASCAR Cup race and shattering any competitive aspirations of everyone dragging along for the ride in his rear-view mirror.

Still, the question needs to be asked:

“Is your magic number 393 on Sunday?

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“Honestly we just took it as it came,” he said, allowing a brief chuckle. “It was one of those dream races where everything came together the way you needed them to. Aside for having to pit on the green lap, we led every lap, so it was pretty crazy.”

It was crazy, but not in a good way. It’s a bad business model for the sport, unless you happen to be part of Truex’s inner circle at Furniture Row Racing. The very purpose and nature of sports is competition.

Blowouts are rarely fun, especially when it’s the longest race of the year. Looking to add some competitive mojo, a VHT traction compound has been embedded into the top lane on the asphalt at Charlotte this week. The intent is to widen the groove to give drivers more options beyond playing “follow the leader.”

But it remains speculative as to how all of this will play out Sunday night.

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“I got in it by accident,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said, reflecting on a practice run on Thursday. “I got loose into [Turn] 3 and ended up there. They say it takes some heat to activate and for it to really get grippy. You don’t really sense it when you’re up there today in it. But I’m sure in the race some guys will get up there and start running through there. It’s going to improve the speed in those grooves.”

The cause for concern goes beyond Truex’s dominance last season. NASCAR’s All-Star race, staged last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, was a snoozefest. Kyle Larson led all 20 laps in the first and second segments. Jimmie Johnson then led 19 of 20 in the third segment. Race winner Kyle Busch led all 10 laps in the final segment.

And there were only two lead changes.

“The hard thing about it, really, is we’ve got to go back there next weekend and run 600 miles,” Earnhardt said during his Periscope feed this week.

As everyone goes round and round, logistics come into play here more than any other race, affecting both man and machine. At 600 miles, it is the longest race of the season. And there are fluctuating conditions affecting the car because the race starts about 6:20 in the sunlight, segues into dusk and then ends under the lights.

It wears on drivers physically as well because there’s no other race that matches those conditions.

“The 600 race is certainly a mental grind,” Busch said. “It’s also a physical grind. You just get tired. I wouldn’t say you’re falling out of the seat. It’s just when you’re done, you’re done.”

But there also could be a mental grind for fans. Nobody wants to see cars go round and round without any serious action. As day turns into night on Sunday, the hope is that the unforgiving track cooperates in helping the drivers put on a show.

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“It’s one of those places that’s really really difficult to get your car set up properly, but when you do you can really put it on them,” Truex said. “It’s a tough place to get around, and having some free air makes it more comfortable.

“That was the most dominant race ever last year. It was just one of those deals.”

sports@latimes.com


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