Dale Jr. runs dry, Harvick wins Coca-Cola 600
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came within a quarter-mile of breaking a 104-race winless drought only to see his chance for a victory slip away on the final lap, coming out on the losing end of a fuel mileage gamble in Sunday night’s Coca Cola 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag after Earnhardt, Jr. sputtered coming through turn four, capping a wild overtime finish that saw four lead changes in the last four laps as the leaders ran out of gas one by one.
It was the third victory of the season and the first career regular-season Sprint Cup Charlotte victory for Harvick - who previously won the NASCAR Sprint All Star race here in 2007.
Harvick’s win seemed an ironic twist considering he believes Charlotte to be his worst track, and spent the better part of Sunday’s race complaining to his crew about the performance of his car.
“I can’t stand driving in this place,” said Harvick. “Even though we won, I’m still miserable. This is a great facility, great management, great people running it, but it’s just been a race track for me where I’ve struggled every time I’ve ever been here.
"Today we were lucky. I told them at the beginning of this thing that we haven't fixed this thing in two weeks, there's no way we're going to fix it today. Nothing against this race track I just don't like racing here. It just doesn't feel right.”
David Ragan finished second, followed by Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger.
NASCAR’s longest race turned into a desperate fuel mileage race as drivers struggled to conserve fuel following the final round of pit stops with 55 laps to go.
Greg Biffle led for 49 of the last 52 laps, trying to save gas and hold off Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt, Jr., but with three laps to go, Jimmie Johnson’s engine expired, setting up a three-lap shootout to the finish.
Unable to make it on fuel, Biffle gave up the lead to come to pit road, handling the lead to Kahne with Earnhardt in second, followed by Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Harvick.
Trying to save every drop of fuel, Earnhardt, Jr. ran on the apron, shutting down his no. 88 National Guard Chevy and coasting.
On the restart, Kahne’s Toyota faltered, allowing Earnhardt to pass for the lead as the field scrambled to avoid Kahne, causing Jeff Burton to spin out in turn one.
In a controversial move, NASCAR did not throw the caution flag, and Earnhardt, Jr. came around to take the white flag as the race leader while Harvick dodged the melee in turn one to move into second place.
While the crowd roared its approval, Earnhardt’s miraculous run came to an end as he ran out of fuel coming through turn four while Harvick sped by to take the win, finishing the race in seventh.
“We weren’t supposed to make it,” said Earnhardt, Jr. “We were gonna run out of gas, and we knew it. I tried to save a ton of gas, but I didn’t save enough.
“I’m disappointed we didn’t win…I would have loved to have won this race. We were fortunate to have enough momentum to carry us around to the front straightaway and get a seventh-place finish.”
For Harvick, the final three laps was a go-for-broke gamble that paid off, even though the team had planned to pit for a splash a fuel had the race stayed green.
“We started saving gas from lap one when the green flag fell, just hoping that we’d go to the end,” said Harvick. “I saw those guys up there racing and I knew how close we were on gas but it all worked out for us.
“We’re just going to try to save gas and try to get to one pit stop to go by saving gas. And the caution came out with like four or five laps before we were supposed to pit. So heck, it’s just one of those deals where we had enough gas to get to the end and wound up winning the race.”
Harvick used a team strategy to help save gas during the final caution period – shutting down his engine while being pushed by teammates Paul Menard and Jeff Burton.
“It was all legal,” said team owner Richard Childress of the push from Harvick’s teammates. “You can do what we were doing there. You just can’t push somebody across the checkered flag to win it on the last lap. That’s the rule.”
Ragan collected his career-best finish in a runner-up effort, coming on the heels of his victory in last Saturday’s Sprint Showdown.
He was among several drivers who elected to pit before the start of the green-white-checkered shootout, restarting tenth, and managed to slip through when the field stacked up on the final restart.
“I thought it was gonna get ugly there at the end, which it did for everyone else and not us,” said Ragan. “That last caution came out we were gonna be like a lap or two short. If we would have been leading, we would have stayed out. You can be aggressive on those restarts and I was just very lucky to get through turn one without getting wrecked.
“We were just in the right place at the right time. We had a strong car all day. That’s a finish that we deserved, but we just went about doing it the hard way.”
With his victory, Harvick moves up to three spots to second in the series points standings, 36 points behind leader Carl Edwards.
After making headlines earlier this week getting a traffic citation for going 128 mph in a supped-up sportscar, Kyle Busch capped off a bad week with a DNF after bringing out the caution flag twice before parking his car on lap 344, finishing 32nd. He was among 12 drivers who failed to finish the event.
* Denotes Rookie
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