The Indianapolis 500, by far the biggest race of the IndyCar Series season and faced with the prospect of having Danica Patrick in the race for perhaps the final time with her possible move to NASCAR, needed to have a dramatic race Sunday.
It got it.
The Coca-Cola 600, which doesn’t carry the stature as the biggest NASCAR race but is certified as its longest and one of its most prestigious, couldn’t afford a snoozer in the shadow of the last-lap IndyCar drama earlier in the day. It needed to have drama, too.
It got it.
Both races had a little bit of everything, with the favorites coming up empty and a feel-good story ending in heartbreak on the final lap.
Which race was better and which finish was more exciting? That probably depends on if you’re a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Approximately 11 hours before Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas at the end of the Coca-Cola 600, while leading the race, the racing day in the United States began with the start of the Indianapolis 500.
Many people figured that a driver for team owners Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi would end up in victory lane. But then it appeared it would be a rookie.
JR Hildebrand was leading going into the final turn until he got in the marbles and hit the wall in Turn 4. Dan Wheldon, a driver for a team that has no plans beyond the Indianapolis 500, shot past him for the win.
Hildebrand limped across the finish line in second, and afterward even referenced the 1995 NASCAR race at Bristol when Terry Labonte crashed in lapped traffic while crossing the finish line to hold off Dale Earnhardt for the win.
“There was certainly a split-second where I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, maybe I'll pull a Terry Labonte at Martinsville or Bristol or whatever it was that year,’” Hildebrand said.
The two strongest teams in IndyCar racing, Penske and Ganassi, were left out of victory lane, while Patrick, who had to pit late like most, finished 10th.
It was going to be hard for the Coca-Cola 600, which started hours later, to match that drama.
As NASCAR’s longest race, it undoubtedly would have periods when cars would get strung out and would feature either a long-green flag run that wouldn’t have much drama or so many cautions that the race would seem to drag.
The race Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway had a little bit of both, but with cars on different pit cycles and Denny Hamlin battling a sour carburetor, it made for an intriguing race.
The Roush Fenway Racing cars seemed to dominate for much of the event and even in the fuel-mileage game, it appeared that Roush Fenway’s Greg Biffle was going to be able to stretch his mileage and win.
That was until Jimmie Johnson blew an engine with about four laps to go, bringing out the caution and extending the race by at least two extra laps.
That forced Biffle to give up the lead under caution and led to Kasey Kahne running out of fuel on the restart of a green-white-checkered finish. All of a sudden, the sport’s most popular driver, who just happened to have a 104-race winless streak, had the lead.
But as the last drop of fuel was sucked out of Earnhardt Jr.’s car, so was the hope of the Junior Nation. Kevin Harvick sped on by for the victory, and Earnhardt Jr. wound up seventh.
It doesn’t get much more dramatic than that, and the Coca-Cola 600 was saved by a wild ending and unexpected winner.
Which finish was better?
The Indianapolis finish was more unpredictable as no one expected Hildebrand to wreck. The Charlotte finish was more gut-wrenching for fans who have followed the ups-and-downs of Earnhardt Jr.
Indianapolis got the bonus of a winner who was a dark horse at best while NASCAR got Kevin Harvick, a guy who wasn’t necessarily a favorite but had already won twice this year.
Indianapolis got the benefit of its race ending in the middle of the afternoon, while NASCAR had its race end after 11 p.m. Eastern.
Indianapolis also had the benefit of diversity as it had four women in the field while the Coca-Cola 600 had none.
So in some ways, Indianapolis can claim being the clear winner in the debate of which race was better. If Earnhardt Jr. had won the Coca-Cola 600, it would have been easy to say that NASCAR stole IndyCar’s thunder on its biggest day.
Instead, maybe NASCAR just shared in the drama of a dramatic day. And that probably is good enough on a day where it shares the stage with IndyCar’s biggest race.