CONCORD, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. could see the checkered flag coming out of Turn 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Just a short stretch of the 1.5-mile oval stood between him and his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the season, when his No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet sputtered out of fuel. He coasted for the seventh-place finish to record his sixth top-10 finish of the season.
“You know, we had to go for it,” team owner Rick Hendrick told MRN after the race. “We were a couple hundred feet, and he would have won the race so it was one of those deals that we had to do it. Dale did a super job, and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) called a heck of a race. It was a great race all night, the best that the (No.) 88 has run on a mile-and-a-half track. So we’ll take it. Rough night for the rest of our guys, but I’m real proud of Junior and Steve.”
Earnhardt battled fiercely in the closing laps of the 600-mile event and rallied from his 25th starting spot to run inside the top 10. When the final caution flag was issued with five laps to go, Earnhardt lined up on the inside of the front row next to Kasey Kahne. Earnhardt had a solid restart and was poised for his first win at the 1.5-mile oval when the fuel issue arose.
“I'm disappointed, we came so close to winning but, I was sitting there looking at maybe a 20th-place finish if we would have run out of gas sooner," said Earnhardt, who ranks fourth in the driver standings. "I thought those guys wrecked on that restart and that would have brought the caution out before the white and we'd have had to pit. This was probably, in all honesty, the best turnout of events for us besides winning the race. But it wasn't the car, we just ran out of gas. That is just the way it goes. We will keep working hard. We run good."
Earnhardt’s teammates also dealt with disappointment during Sunday’s 400-lap event. With just under 100 laps left in Sunday’s Cup event, Mark Martin was involved in a three-car pileup that sent his No. 5 CARQUEST Auto Parts/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet to the garage. Martin lined up 13th for the 600-mile event and was running inside the top 15 when he was collected in an incident on Lap 303. Martin was racing David Gilliland, when Gilliland’s No. 34 car got loose and pushed Martin into the outside wall. The contact melded the cars together, and the duo came to a rest in the middle of Turn 4.
“We were just running on the outside during the restart there on the high side, and I got collected,” Martin said afterward. “I haven’t seen (the replay) yet. I don’t know what happened yet. I just know we got collected.”
Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt all pitted during this yellow-flag period, and Gordon left pit road as the new leader. By the conclusion of the race, the driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet had led 19 laps. But he struggled to keep pace with the field and finished 20th.
Two caution periods later, Johnson returned to pit road for tires, fuel and adjustments on Lap 345. During the stop, however, a piece of equipment was left attached to Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Summer Salute Chevrolet. The miscue cost Johnson position, and he was required to complete a pass-through penalty. Johnson was working his way through the field when his engine expired on Lap 396. He was scored with the 28th-place finish, and the caution period set up the final dash for the green-white-checkered flag.
“What I’m taking from this week is that we had a fast car. Unfortunately four laps from the end we lost an engine, which never happens. We’ve had a lot of things go our way over the years and the last couple of weeks, things have not gone our way and that’s just how it goes. So we’ll dig in deep and work hard and get this Lowe’s car back where it belongs.
“We dropped a cylinder and it blew the engine with four (laps) to go," said Johnson, who ranks third in the driver standings. "So it was definitely a disappointing way to finish up. We fought so hard all night long and to get track position from multiple issues and then got ourselves up there and were looking at a top-five finish and lost the engine. It was very uncharacteristic. Our engine shop is very dedicated and focused on building reliable power. So it must have been a fluke deal.”