CONCORD, N.C. _ On a day that saw the leader wreck on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 also came down to a last lap pass for the win. Ironically, in both events it was the National Guard car that came up short on Memorial Day weekend.
Leading the field to the white flag, Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought Junior Nation to their feet as it appeared the fan favorite was about to end his daunting winless streak.
However just like the Indy 500, it was not meant to be for the National Guard car.
As the race was pushed into a green-white-checkered finish by Jimmie Johnson’s blown engine, nearly all of the leaders were stretching their fuel mileage to make it to the end.
Leader Greg Biffle was forced to pit road as the field rolled around under caution. Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Paul Menard lined up to push Kevin Harvick as he shut the engine off saving fuel. Earnhardt Jr. also shut his engine off trying to save as much as he could.
Coming to the green flag, leader Kasey Kahne ran out of fuel as Earnhardt Jr. moved into the lead. As Kahne ran out of gas, the field stacked up and Jeff Burton was sent spinning to the inside of the track when he was hit from behind after hitting Brad Keselowski. The wreck did not draw the caution flag and Earnhardt Jr. took the white flag as the leader.
Heading down the backstretch on the final lap, the No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas.
Coming off the final corner, Harvick was able to move around Earnhardt Jr. and take his third victory of the year, as Earnhardt Jr. was able to coast his way across the line to finish seventh.
“I was out on the back straightaway,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “My car just kept up enough speed it didn't look like it was out. But, I was out. The spotter is like 'man, they are comin', they are comin' and I'm like I'm just crusin' here, what am I supposed to do? Get out and pedal this thing with my feet?”
“The spotter was going nuts,” Harvick said. “He's like, ‘88 (Earnhardt Jr.) is out of gas, keep going.’ I'm like, ‘Well, I'm not going to let off. What do you want me to do? I'm going as hard as I can go.’ At that point he had told me just to go. I didn't need to save. I saw the 11 (Denny Hamlin) wiggling coming off of (Turn) 2. I knew he was out of gas. All of a sudden 88 just shut off. They must have sucked every drop out of the fuel cell. I had just passed the 11 and as he went into (Turn) 3 you could see it just shut off and he was dead in the water.”
For Earnhardt Jr., the loss was disappointing, but he was encouraged with how well the team ran throughout the entire 600-mile event.
“I'm pretty happy,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I'm disappointed about running out of gas, but we knew we were...we knew we were short. You saw the No. 16 (Greg Biffle) give up the lead. Everybody knew they were short. We were just fortunate enough to get around to the back straightaway and have enough momentum to carry us around to the front straightaway and get a seventh place finish I think, wherever we finished...somewhere in the top-10.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Pleased with the win, Harvick knew it was gut-wrenching to beat Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap with the No. 88 running out of gas.
“I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth,” Harvick said. “Man, when I saw that thing slowing down, I was like, I really want to win the race, but why can't it be on a day when we're running bad or have something going wrong.
“I think everybody sitting up here would say we want the 88 to win and they're so close to winning and both times they had a chance to win,” he said. “We are going to do what we have to do to win the races, and today it all just worked out strategy wise that we won the race. But I feel so stinking bad for him, and I know how bad he wants it. But it's – it'll happen. They keep running like that, it'll happen.”
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