The Monaco Grand Prix started at 9:15 a.m. and the Coca Cola 600 ended at 11:19 p.m.; in between, the greatest day in racing did not disappoint.
There was a 90 percent chance of rain when Monaco started, but the weather never arrived. Following a moving tribute to recently deceased racer Niki Lauda, the race started.
As hard as overtaking is on the street course, the biggest Formula One grand prix of the year was decided on Lap 11 of 78 by pit stops made during a safety car period and a timed penalty against Max Verstappen for an “unsafe release” from the pits.
Lewis Hamilton led the race and incredibly made his 50-lap medium-compound tires last 67 laps while keeping the competition at bay. Verstappen could have won if he had passed Hamilton and built a gap to overcome his five-second penalty, but it wasn’t to be. Hamilton scored the win, officially followed by Vettel and Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas.
Following Monaco, it was time for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. The estimated 300,000-plus spectators made it the biggest crowd in years for the world’s largest single-day sporting event.
Simon Pagenaud had the fastest car but didn’t get the best fuel mileage. That distinction fell to Scott Dixon. But Dixon didn’t have the pace of Alexander Rossi, who was nearly as fast as Pagenaud but got much better fuel mileage.
It appeared the race could come down to fuel mileage in the end until Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais triggered a five-car accident on Lap 178 of 200, resulting in a red flag to ensure the safety barrier wasn’t compromised and to leave as many possible laps for racing.
With fuel out of the equation, the race restarted with 13 laps remaining. In the final 10 laps, it was a three-way battle between Rossi, Pagenaud and Takuma Sato. After multiple swaps for the top spot, Pagenaud made the final pass for the lead with a lap-and-a-half to go, beating Rossi and Sato to the line.
The win completed Pagenaud’s sweep of Indy, having won the Indy Grand Prix earlier in the month and scoring the pole for the 500. He was the 21st driver to win the 500 from the pole, the first since 2009. The win also marked Roger Penske’s 18th Indy 500 win as a car owner.
Following Indy, it was on to Charlotte and the longest race on the NASCAR schedule, the Coca Cola 600, which also appeared to attract the largest crowd in years.
William Byron started as the youngest pole sitter in the race’s history, and the 21-year-old led nearly 40 laps of the race, which was divided into four 100-lap stages. But five cautions before the first stage break – including three for tire failures on Toyotas associated with Joe Gibbs Racing – foretold a long night.
Brad Keselowski won the first two stages. Following the second stage, the field was brought down pit road for a moving 30-second moment of silence in honor of military personnel who lost their lives in service of the country.
Though he blew a tire and hit the wall in the first segment, Martin Truex Jr. won the third stage. And despite much shuffling of the field and four more cautions in the final segment, Truex went on to win his second 600, followed by Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.
The win was the 22nd of Truex’s career, and his third this season, all coming in the last five races. In all, he led a total of 53 laps in a race that had 30 official lead changes among 10 drivers. Including the three-stage breaks, there were a total of 16 cautions.
Monaco held intrigue as Hamilton had to race on the edge, going just fast enough to hold off his competitors, but easy enough to make his tires last longer than expected. The Indy 500 came down to an incredible battle during the final 10 laps in front of a sizeable crowd. And the 600 at Charlotte, also in front of a good crowd, was a competitive race with a lot of passing and enough thrills and spills to keep the fans interest throughout. The greatest day in racing more than lived up to its billing.
Don’t forget about the Short Track U.S. Nationals at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday. Racing starts at about 5 p.m., and there shouldn’t be a problem getting tickets at the gate. Four short track divisions, including Super Late Models will compete; it should be a great show.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.