Kevin Harvick claimed his third NASCAR Sprint Cup race victory of the season after Dale Earnhardt Jr ran out of fuel on the final corner of Sunday's Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Thousands of fans in the stands were ready to see NASCAR's most popular driver break a 104-race win-less streak after he took the white flag as the leader, following a late restart a lap earlier. Earnhardt seemed to be in control but the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet visibly slowed down before the final corner as his legions of followers watched in disbelief.
Earnhardt's tank ran empty less than a mile from the finish line and Richard Childress Racing's Harvick, who had led only one lap before that, went on to take the chequered flag as the winner of NASCAR's longest race. Harvick had rarely been a contender at the front for most of the event but once again his ability to close races better than rivals prevailed, this time with a bit of help from Earnhardt's misfortunes.
"It's one of those deals like today, when everybody started pitting we said to heck with it," said Harvick. "We're just going to try to save gas and try to get to one pitstop 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."
The dramatic green-white-chequered finish came after Earnhardt's team-mate Jimmie Johnson caused the caution to wave due to an engine failure four laps from the scheduled end. Before the yellow flags waved, Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle, who recovered from early cooling issues inside his car, was trying to fend off the charging Red Bull Toyota of Kasey Kahne for the lead, while Earnhardt closed on both of them.
Most of the late frontrunners were marginal on their fuel mileage, and Biffle eventually had to pit under the caution while Kahne ran out of fuel when the green flag waved for the last time. Earnhardt had been saving gas before that, but the duration of the final caution made the race two laps longer, thus putting more pressure on those who were tight on fuel.
When Kahne ran dry on the final restart there was contact between a number of cars behind him, Penske's Brad Keselowski getting massive damage on the rear of his #2 Dodge. However no caution was waved, setting up the unexpected turn of events that unfolded on the last lap.
"I was out [of fuel] on the back straightaway," said Earnhardt. "My car just kept up enough speed it didn't look like it was out. But, I was out. The spotter is like 'man, they are coming, they are coming' and I'm like I'm just cruising here, what am I supposed to do? Get out and pedal this thing with my feet?
"It was a long race and a really hard race and I haven't ran good here in a long time. We ran really, really good tonight. Real good and I'm real happy about that. The wins are going to come; we just have to keep working."
Varying fuel and specially tyre strategies placed some of the fastest cars of the race in the middle of the pack ahead of the closing stages. The Roush Fenway duo of Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth seemed in a different league while running ahead during the first half of the race, but in Kenseth's case he had to pit for fuel just as he was about to catch the leaders with seven laps to go, while Edwards struggled to get track position due to his strategy.
"We were great, but it was just a track position game," said Edwards. "By chance, everything that we did ended up being bad for track position. We were loose at the wrong times and I made some moves out there that put us in some spots that set us back, but that's racing.
"I thought there at the end with all the fuel I saved that we were going to be in a really good spot, but somebody ran out of fuel on the restart and everybody just clobbered everyone."
Roush cars led more than half the race between them - Kenseth leading more than a quarter of the race - but the one that spent the least laps at the front among them eventually came the closest to victory. David Ragan led seven laps in total and looked just as quick as his team-mates at times, in the end crossing the finish line in second for his best Cup race finish to date.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano finished third ahead of Penske's Kurt Busch, none of them top contenders through the 600 miles of racing. The Richard Petty Motorsports Fords of AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose both led the race for a few laps and looked strong in the first half of the race, finishing fifth and sixth ahead of Earnhardt's coasting Chevy in the end.
It was a tough night for Logano's team-mate Kyle Busch, who led for 55 laps but then suffered two spins out of Turn 4, the second one causing damage to the rear of his Toyota and requiring a lengthy visit to the garage.
Edwards was only 16th at the flag, but he continues to lead the standings, now ahead of a closing Harvick who has all but earned an early birth in this year's Chase by virtue of his three victories thus far. This year the two drivers with the most wins after the first 26 races, who rank in the top 20, earn a place in the championship play-off and Harvick leads the series in wins so far.
Results - 402 laps: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet 4h33m14.000s 2. David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford + 0.703s 3. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 1.393s 4. Kurt Busch Penske Dodge + 1.953s 5. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 1.978s 6. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 2.243s 7. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 2.269s 8. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 2.443s 9. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 2.460s 10. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 2.865s 11. Ricky Stenhouse Jr Wood Brothers Ford + 3.184s 12. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 3.225s 13. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 3.413s 14. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 3.562s 15. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 3.893s 16. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 5.052s 17. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 16.787s 18. Brian Vickers Red Bull Toyota + 19.744s 19. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 37.637s 20. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 1 lap 21. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap 22. Kasey Kahne Red Bull Toyota + 1 lap 23. Casey Mears Germain Toyota + 1 lap 24. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 2 laps 25. Travis Kvapil Front Row Ford + 4 laps 26. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 5 laps 27. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 6 laps 28. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 7 laps 29. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 19 laps 30. Mike Bliss FAS Lane Ford + 35 laps 31. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 44 laps Retirements: Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota 344 laps David Gilliland Front Row Ford 301 laps Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet 301 laps Landon Cassill Phoenix Chevrolet 293 laps David Starr Leavine Fenton Ford 286 laps Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 181 laps Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge 99 laps Michael McDowell HP Toyota 40 laps David Stremme Inception Chevrolet 34 laps Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 28 laps JJ Yeley Whitney Chevrolet 22 laps Mike Skinner Germain Toyota 6 laps