CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. closed out a day of wild finishes Sunday by running out of gas a half-lap short of snapping his nearly three-year losing streak.
Kevin Harvick sailed by Earnhardt coming out of the final turn in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Earnhardt was comfortably out front in the closing laps of NASCAR’s longest race of the year. Earnhardt knew stretching his gas to the finish was going to be tough, but crew chief Steve Letarte ordered him to go for broke.
It capped a frantic few minutes of strategy as nearly five hours of racing came down to fuel mileage and a final two-lap sprint to the finish.
The crew chief begged Earnhardt to not worry about gas and chase down Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne over the final 20 laps. But Letarte reversed course when Kahne closed in on Biffle, and Matt Kenseth, who was running fourth, stopped for gas.
Figuring Biffle and Kahne would run out racing each other for the win, he urged Earnhardt to sit tight and try to exploit their misfortune. It might have worked, too, if Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson’s engine didn’t fail four laps from the finish.
Biffle had to stop for gas under caution, and Kahne and Earnhardt lined up side-by-side for the final restart.
Earnhardt, on the bottom, got a great jump as Kahne got hit from behind by Brad Keselowski. It caused cars to stack up in the middle of the pack, and debris was strewn everywhere. But the caution call from NASCAR never came, and Earnhardt needed only to get to the white flag to seal his win.
He got to the flag just fine. But because the yellow never waved, he had to race and couldn’t make it to the finish.
Earnhardt ran out on the back straightaway, coasted through the final turn, and Harvick cruised by for his third win of the season.
“I just do what my dang crew chief says, and I believe that was the right call because if we would have pitted, I don’t know where we would have finished,” Earnhardt said. “We weren’t supposed to make it. We played our hand. I tried to save a ton of gas, as much as I could. I’m disappointed we didn’t win. To come so close. But if we had won that race, it would have been a gift.”
Earnhardt faded to seventh, and his losing streak hit 105 races. Earnhardt apologized to his fans — many of whom were jumping up and down in anticipation mere seconds from the finish.
Earlier Sunday, rookie JR Hildebrand crashed coming out of the final turn to lose the Indianapolis 500. Both Earnhardt and Hildebrand are sponsored by the National Guard, and the finishes of the two big races spoiled what would have been a celebratory Memorial Day for the military, which makes sponsorship of auto racing its top marketing tool.
David Ragan, meanwhile, finished second in a Ford behind the Chevrolet of Harvick. Joey Logano was third in third in a Toyota, and Kurt Busch was fourth in a Dodge. AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose were fifth in sixth in Fords for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Regan Smith was eighth in a Chevrolet, while the Toyotas of David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10.
The finishing order wasn’t really indicative of how drivers managed the 600-mile race.
Biffle and Kenseth probably had the best cars, but Biffle would up 13th and Kenseth was 14th because of the fuel issues. Kahne, who came back from a pit road speeding penalty to have a shot at the win, wound up 22nd.
Kyle Busch led 55 laps, but had two late spins and finished 32nd.
It was so topsy-turvy, it opened the door for drivers who struggled mightily most of the race, and that included Hamlin, who changed his carburetor late in the race to drop from fourth to 27th with 99 laps to go.
“My eyes got huge when I saw everyone was running out in front of us,” Hamlin said.
Same for Harvick, who complained from the very first laps about the handling of his Chevrolet, some pit calls by crew chief Gil Martin and a debris caution from NASCAR that Harvick doubted was legitimate.
But he somehow worked his way toward the front, and put himself in position to steal the win 500 yards from the finish.
“We were lucky,” Harvick said from Victory Lane. “It’s nothing against the race track, I just don’t like racing here. It just doesn’t fit what I do. I griped and griped and griped all day long about how terrible it was. I just had a bad attitude.”
In Saturday’s Nationwide race, Matt Kenseth had never driven the new Nationwide Series car and was in unfamiliar territory as a one-time, fill-in driver.
It didn’t matter on a hot, steamy Saturday afternoon. Not with Roush Fenway Racing dominating like it is.
As former Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen struggled through a miserable day in his Nationwide debut, Kenseth passed teammate Carl Edwards with two laps to go and hung on to win the 300-mile race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Edwards, who won last week’s All-Star race at the same track, held on to finish second and Roush Fenway’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was fourth to move within one point of series leader Elliott Sadler.
Only Kyle Busch, who failed to match Mark Martin’s Nationwide Series record of 49 career wins, could come close to Jack Roush’s team with a third-place finish.
“That was fun,” Kenseth said.
There’s been a lot of fun lately around the team. Roush Fenway drivers have won the last six Nationwide and Sprint Cup races, counting two non-points events, in a resurgence for the team and Ford’s NASCAR’s program.
“I’m thinking what a difference a year makes,” Roush said. “Last year it didn’t seem for a long time we couldn’t buy a victory.”
Kenseth was filling in for Trevor Bayne, who has been sidelined with an inflammatory condition, in the No. 16 Ford. The Sprint Cup regular came in with 25 Nationwide wins, but none since the series shifted to the new car. Kenseth said he felt comfortable after a few laps.
“You have to drive them a little different because of the horsepower difference, but they’re really a lot like the Cup car,” Kenseth said.
Kenseth was far more comfortable than Raikkonen, who finished four laps down in 27th amid uncertainty about his stock-car racing future.
“It really turned out to be a really bad day,” Raikkonen said.
A week after finishing 15th in his NASCAR debut in the Truck Series, Raikkonen started 22nd and soon ran into trouble.
The Finland native complained early over his radio of his No. 87 Toyota being too tight. He also wasn’t wearing heat shields on his shoes and said his feet were “burning.”
He was having trouble turning his car and used colorful language to express his frustrations as he tried to keep his feet cool while repeatedly asking for larger water bottles. About halfway through he radioed in that he scraped the wall, and even after climbing to 15th he complained his car wasn’t responding.
Raikkonen’s first green-flag pit stop in NASCAR competition ended with him getting caught speeding. The pass-through penalty with 58 laps to go dropped him to 27th and two laps down. Raikkonen then ran over some debris and damaged his splitter, forcing another green-flag stop.
The next step is uncertain. Car owner Kyle Busch said Raikkonen has not paid for any future races with his team.
“I have to go back to Europe and do some Rallies and then we’ll see what happens,” Raikkonen said.
Kenseth, Busch and Kevin Harvick shared the lead for much of the first two-thirds of the 200-lap race. Edwards had the lead on a restart with 46 laps to go, and Harvick blew a tire shortly thereafter to fall a lap down.
Kenseth and Edwards traded the lead with five laps to go, but Edwards had nothing left after Kenseth’s late pass.
“That was hard racing,” Edwards said. “Matt there at the end, he was better and he had the kid gloves on with me there.”
Reed Sorenson was fifth, while Sadler recovered from early handling problems to finish 10th and maintain a slim lead over Stenhouse.
Cole Whitt, the 19-year-old Truck Series points leader finished 15th in his Nationwide Series season debut.
Stenhouse, who became the first non-Sprint Cup regular to win a Nationwide Series race a week ago, will make his Sprint Cup debut Sunday filling in for Bayne. But Bayne, the Daytona 500 champion, is expected to return to his Nationwide Series car next week at Chicago.
He’ll be rejoining NASCAR’s hottest race team.
“One of the things I worried about when he had his problem was that the team would go stale,” Roush said. “We managed to keep the team going.”