CONCORD, N.C. -- NASCAR's longest race features a clash between Winston Cup racing's new breed and the sport's established stars.
As usual, Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 will be determined by who can best adjust to the changing track and handling conditions of a race that begins in daylight and finishes well after dark, some 4« hours later.
But the 400-lap, 600-mile event at Lowe's Motor Speedway at Charlotte has a reputation for producing new winners, and this year's 43-car field includes several newcomers who could contend, including Tony Stewart, who will fly in after racing in the Indy 500 earlier in the day.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Elliott Sadler, and Mike Skinner also have strong cars that have performed consistently well in practice runs leading up the race.
All are winners from other circuits who are gradually raising their comfort level in Winston Cup racing. The same could have been said in 1994 about Jeff Gordon or in 1995 about Bobby Labonte.
Gordon got his first Winston Cup victory at the 600 in 1994, and Labonte got career triumph No. 1 at the race the following year. Gordon has won 44 races and three series driving titles since then; Labonte has followed his Charlotte triumph with six more victories and has become a consistent fixture among the points leaders.
"I have a good feel about things, especially since we're racing at Charlotte," said Labonte, the 600 pole-sitter and the third-place driver in the 1999 driver standings. "If nothing happens to us, we always feel like we'll run well here."
Labonte is getting pressured this year by Stewart, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and the runaway leader for the sport's top rookie honors. Stewart already has one pole and four top-10 finishes in 11 races, placing him seventh in the points.
But Stewart's ability to win Sunday could depend on his ability to work his way up from the rear of the 43-car field. He's likely to start there as a penalty for not attending the pre-race drivers' meeting because he also plans to drive in the Indianapolis 500 earlier Sunday.
While it will be Stewart's first attempt to pull off the 500-600 daily double, Earnhardt, the reigning NASCAR Busch Grand National champion, will be making his first appearance in any Winston Cup race. The 24-year-old son of seven-time Winston Cup champion qualified a solid eighth -- seven spots higher than his father -- and looked very strong in practice runs all week.
"Realistically, anything can happen to us here," said Earnhardt, who plans to run five Winston Cup races this year and move to the circuit on a full-time basis in 2000. "We need to go ahead and face the music here and get down to business and get good at it as quick as we can. Realistically, I wouldn't put a top 10 out of the picture."
To do that, Earnhardt's team will have to quickly adjust his car to the rapidly changing conditions. The event begins about three hours before dusk, but as the sun sets and the racing surface begins to cool, it dramatically changes a car's handling capabilities.
"The driver and the team have to be good at getting together to make changes as the race goes on," two-time Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte said. "What works at six o'clock doesn't work at 10 o'clock."
The Labonte brothers, Gordon and the elder Earnhardt head a list of veteran drivers in General Motors cars who are expected to be strong contenders.
The proven Ford drivers include Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace.
Jarrett has enjoyed particularly good fortune so far this year as Gordon's run has slowed.
After winning three of the last four driving titles, Gordon has failed to finish three races so far in 1999 and got banged up at Texas Motor Speedway in what was the hardest crash yet in his Winston Cup career. His problems continued at Charlotte, where he had won five consecutive poles for the 600. He drew an early spot in the line for time trials and had to make his qualifying run before the track cooled and speeds rose, relegating Gordon to the 10th spot on the starting grid.
"I think we've got a good car," he said. "A lot of things have worked in our favor in the 600 in the past, and that's what we're going to need to happen again to win."
Jarrett, by contrast, has nine top-10 finishes in 11 races, giving him a 63-point lead over Burton atop the driver standings.
"We're doing the right things," said Jarrett, who will start 28th Sunday, "and I think we're in an excellent position to capitalize right now."
Coca-Cola 600 line-up
The starting line-up for Sunday evening's NASCAR Winston Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway with starting position, car number (in parentheses), driver, make of car and speed in mph:
1. (18) Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, 185.230 mph.
2. (99) Jeff Burton, Ford, 184.868.
3. (55) Kenny Wallace, Chevrolet, 184.799.
4. (21) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 184.761.
5. (1) Steve Park, Chevrolet, 184.634.
6. (33) Ken Schrader, Chevrolet, 184.483.
7. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, 184.458.
8. (8) Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chevrolet, 184.407.
9. (12) Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, 184.388.
10. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 184.162.
11. (31) Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 184.099.
12. (22) Ward Burton, Pontiac, 183.943.
13. (4) Bobby Hamilton, Chevrolet, 183.899.
14. (98) Rick Mast, Ford, 183.711.
15. (3) Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 183.692.
16. (9) Jerry Nadeau, Ford, 183.673.
17. (11) Brett Bodine, Ford, 183.624.
18. (00) Buckshot Jones, Pontiac, 183.468.
19. (2) Rusty Wallace, Ford, 183.206.
20. (36) Ernie Irvan, Pontiac, 183.206.
21. (75) Ted Musgrave, Ford, 183.163.
22. (43) John Andretti, Pontiac, 183.125.
23. (10) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 182.958.
24. (77) Robert Pressley, Ford, 182.921.
25. (60) Geoffrey Bodine, Chevrolet, 182.896.
26. (7) Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, 182.877.
27. (20) Tony Stewart, Pontiac, 182.865.
28. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 182.815.
29. (94) Bill Elliott, Ford, 182.760.
30. (45) Rich Bickle, Pontiac, 182.661.
31. (90) Hut Stricklin, Ford, 182.513.
32. (41) David Green, Chevrolet, 182.500.
33. (66) Darrell Waltrip, Ford, 182.469.
34. (44) Kyle Petty, Pontiac, 182.402.
35. (23) Jimmy Spencer, Ford, 182.389.
36. (28) Kenny Irwin, Ford, 182.285.
37. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, provisional.
38. (40) Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet, provisional.
39. (97) Chad Little, Ford, provisional.
40. (25) Wally Dallenbach, Chevrolet, provisional.
41. (16) Kevin Lepage, Ford, provisional.
42. (26) Johnny Benson, Ford, provisional.
43. (42) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, provisional.