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NASCAR Sprint-Cup Series
CUP: Harvick Wins Charlotte In Bizarre Finish
Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs out of fuel with checkered flag in sight…
Mike Hembree  |  Posted May 29, 2011   Concord, NC
Take that, Indy.

Kevin Harvick won the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a remarkably tense finish as leader and apparent winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel as he approached the fourth turn on the last lap.

Harvick zipped past Earnhardt Jr. in the fourth turn with the checkered flag in sight.

The finish was stunningly similar to that of the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day. J.R. Hildebrand appeared to have that race won, but he crashed in the fourth turn on the final lap, leaving the victory to Dan Wheldon. Oddly, both the Hildebrand and Earnhardt Jr. cars are sponsored by the National Guard.

“Today we were lucky,” Harvick said. “We didn’t have a spectacular night, but to be in victory lane says a lot about this Budweiser team. I griped and griped and griped all day about how terrible it [the car] was.”

A late caution caused by Jimmie Johnson’s blown engine set up the strange finish and sent the race into extra laps, making it the longest Sprint Cup race in NASCAR history.

The final green flag flew for a green-white-checkered finish with a number of drivers, including Earnhardt Jr. and leader Kasey Kahne, very low on fuel. Kahne ran out of fuel as the pack sailed into the first turn, sending following traffic slipping and sliding behind him. Jeff Burton slid off onto the apron grass, but NASCAR did not throw the caution.

Earnhardt Jr. charged to the lead and then took the white flag easily in front, seemingly about to end a 104-race winless streak. Earnhardt fans were jumping and cheering in the main grandstand.

Then Junior’s fuel tank emptied as the pack left turn three, and Harvick was there to inherit the lead.

“My spotter was going nuts,” Harvick said. “He was saying, ‘The 88 (Earnhardt Jr.) is out of gas – keep going.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to let off.’

“All of a sudden, the 88 just shut off. They must have sucked every drop out of the fuel cell. As he went into three, you could see it shut off. He was dead in the water.”

It was an odd ending for Harvick’s team owner, Richard Childress, who won six Cup championships with Dale Earnhardt Sr. He and Dale Jr. remain very close.

“We all want to see Dale Junior win, but not at our expense,” Childress said. “When I saw him come down the backstretch [on the last lap], I said, ‘Dale is doing to win this race.’ Then I heard our spotter start screaming [about Junior running out of fuel]. I said, ‘We’re going to win it – great.’ ”

Kahne was closing in on Greg Biffle, then the leader, when Johnson’s engine blew, causing the 14th caution of the night and sending the race into overtime. Biffle, stretching his fuel, pitted during the caution to give Kahne the lead for the restart.

Caution flags were the order of the evening in the second half of the race.

Kyle Busch, one of the threats to win the race, went on a wild ride on lap 318. He lost control of his car exiting turn four and sailed across the grass between the frontstretch and pit road, producing the 12th yellow flag of the race. Twenty-five laps later, Busch spun again and drove his Toyota into the garage area, eventually returning to the race 14 laps down.

The 11th caution of the event followed a hard crash involving the cars of Mark Martin, David Gilliland and Ryan Newman in turn three on lap 303.
Mark Martin, David Gilliland and Ryan Newman collide during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ten laps earlier, Landon Cassill thrilled the frontstretch-grandstand crowd by losing control of his car out of turn four after contact from Regan Smith and flying across the grass adjacent to the track.

Paul Menard pushed into the top five past the halfway point but lost a shot at staying in the top 10 when he lost control of his car in the second turn in front of a gaggle of traffic.

Menard brushed the outside wall and then dropped down the track, sending cars behind him scattering. When Martin Truex Jr. slowed to avoid Menard, his car was hit in the rear by Brian Vickers.

The first half of the race gave the Roush Fenway Racing Fords the opportunity to shine.

Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards combined to lead 142 of the first 200 laps. Denny Hamlin, with 23 laps led, was the only other driver with double-digit numbers in the first half of the race.

There were five caution flags in the first half of the race, although none were for serious incidents. Debris and oil on the track slowed competition four times, and the other caution flew when Bobby Labonte spun in turn four.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 29 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
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Mike Hembree