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.
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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."