But that was the only thing that went wrong in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Saving fuel over the final 56 laps of the closing green-flag run, Clint Bowyer snookered his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup rivals in winning his third race of the season and the eighth of his career.
Bowyer, who won for the first time at Charlotte and the first time on an intermediate speedway, beat Denny Hamlin to the finish line by .417 seconds. Jimmie Johnson, who like Hamlin and Bowyer was saving fuel over the final run, came home third. The top three finishers trimmed a significant portion off Brad Keselowski’s series lead.
“I want to do a burnout!” Bowyer lamented in Victory Lane. “Am I ever going to get to do a burnout?”
Keselowski ran out of fuel before his final pit stop and finished 11th. Keselowski leads Johnson by seven points and third-place Hamlin by 15 at the midpoint of the Chase. Bowyer climbed to fourth in the standings, 28 points back.
“Realistically, we’re still in the thing,” Bowyer said. “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing. Talladega (where Bowyer was the victim of a 25-car last-lap crash and finished 23rd) was a huge setback, but what a great way to bounce back and get pointed back in the right direction.”
Bowyer moved from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing this year, and the depth of success in their first season together has been a pleasant surprise.
“It makes you almost giddy,” Bowyer said. “It’s so much fun to come to the racetrack knowing that you’ve got cars that are capable of getting the job done . . . Who would have thought in a million years, after making the switch and coming over to a new family, and everything that was new, that we’d be in Victory Lane three times?
“With five races left, we’re still in contention for a championship our first year together.”
Greg Biffle ran fourth, Kyle Busch fifth and Mark Martin sixth, as only six cars finished on the lead lap
Keselowski, who started 20th, gained track position by pitting under the first caution on Lap 12 and then staying out when the rest of the lead-lap cars came to pit road under the third yellow on Lap 37. From Lap 42 through Lap 166, the race ran caution-free, and when NASCAR threw the fourth yellow for debris in Turn 1 on Lap 166, the caution restored all the lead-lap cars to the same tire cycle.
All except Johnson, that is. Curiously, Johnson was the only driver to take two tires (right sides) as opposed to four during pit stops on Lap 168. The No. 48 Chevrolet restarted the race in the lead on lap 173, but Johnson quickly lost six spots to cars with fresher rubber.
With a three-wide move to the outside on the restart, Biffle took the top spot, but his stint at the point was short-lived. Keselowski slipped past Biffle on lap 180, pulling Hamlin with him, and began logging laps at the front of the field.
A debris caution interrupted the proceedings on lap 223, but it didn’t deter Keselowski, who led the field to a restart on Lap 228 and began to pull away from Kyle Busch. Johnson and Hamlin came to pit road to top off their fuel cells under the caution — whereas Keselowski did not.
Ultimately, that cost the driver of the No. 2 Dodge, who ran one lap too many before his next stop and ran out of fuel before getting back to pit road on Lap 276. Keselowski’s car stalled in the pit box, and by the time he was back up to racing speed, he was 13th in the running order.
Johnson and Hamlin pitted on Laps 279 and 280, respectively, and were confident they could make it to the checkered flag without stopping again. They did — but so did Bowyer.
Neither Hamlin nor Johnson was particularly thrilled at having to back down his speed to save gas, but they were consoled by the dent they made in Keselowski’s points advantage.
“We ran around in circles and were done,” Johnson said sardonically when he entered the media center for his post-race press conference. “It’s a tough way to race, for sure, but I’m happy that as a group and a team, we’ve figured out how to get better at fuel-mileage racing.
“It’s something that we didn’t have in our repertoire for a lot of years. So I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made, that I’ve made in the car. My driving style just eats up fuel. Making good changes, and playing the game the way it needs to be played right now, and closed in a little bit on that No. 2 car (Keselowski).”
Subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was sidelined by a concussion, Regan Smith turned in a strong performance in the early going of the first race without an Earnhardt since 1979 and the first race without a driver from North Carolina since 1961.
Smith ran as high as ninth and was firmly in the 10th spot when his engine expired on Lap 61, ending his first run for Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think the important part was that we had a really fast race car,” Smith said after exiting the No. 88 Chevrolet. “We had a good first adjustment there, went just a little too far with it and got a little too free.
“Needed one more stop and I think we would have had it dialed in . . . It’s disappointing.”
Smith will get his second shot in the car next weekend at Kansas Speedway.