It's rather ironic that in a race sponsored by a multinational drinks giant, it should all come down to someone running dry in the final 500 yards of a 600 mile race. But it wasn't for want of a glass of Coca-Cola that the series' most popular river failed to break his wins drought, but rather a few extra drops of precious gasoline.
The Coca-Cola 600 is the Sprint Cup series' longest race, and while an extra hundred miles over the already lengthy oval events held elsewhere might not seem too much of a big deal, it presents a unique challenge to the Sprint Cup drivers, their cars and especially their engines; while the fact that the race starts in the evening sunlight, transitions through dusks and ends up in the pit black of night time is a whole different set of headaches for the teams to overcome.
The race commenced at 6.20pm before an estimated capacity crowd of 140,000 as pole sitter Brad Keselowski led the field across the start line to take the green flag alongside AJ Allmendinger. But moving up quickly from the second row was Carl Edwards and on lap 8 he took the lead from Keselowski to lay early claim to the race.
Making his Sprint Cup début in the Wood Brothers #21 normally driven by Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got off to a shaky start when he scraped the wall on lap 3 and fell backwards out of the top ten as a result, but after he'd had time to take stock he was back on the radio to report to the team that there were no lasting problems with the car as a result of the impact. Mike Skinner also hit the wall during the opening laps, but was able to bring the car back to the garage without bringing out a yellow flag.
During the first stint, cars were just bedding in and hoping that the car wouldn't display any problems. Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart were both concerned with escalating temperatures in their cars - Stewart's #14 was registering temperatures of around 134 degrees Fahrenheit inside - while Kevin Harvick was saying that his car was flat-out terrible, David Reutimann's was tight and Jamie McMurray's simply slow.
Carl Edwards remained in the lead until he came in for his turn in pit road for the first round of green flag pit stops; Jeff Burton briefly took over before coming in and then AJ Allmendinger had the better pit stop and led for five laps before Edwards was up to speed and past him to resume the lead once more. The two of them were pulling away form the pack which was headed by Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth - the latter hanging on despite reporting a vibration that threatened to send him back to pit road for another set of tyres.
But Edwards' pace was untouchable and soon he was over 4s ahead of even Allmendinger. By the time the first caution of the night came out on lap 74 (for debris in turn 1) he had led 60 laps. The only other person to be really catching the eye out there was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had started from 25th place and was now the biggest mover of the night so far, up 17 places.
Jeff Burton won the race off pit road by taking only two tyres and led the field to green followed by Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson; Hamlin decided he wanted a go in front; he gave Burton a push on the restart that allowed him room to slip on front of Edwards, and then claimed the lead for himself next time around on lap 81.
Edwards, meanwhile, was feeling rather less confident at this point of the race and got loose, allowing Jimmie Johnson to pass him for third; Burton was also struggling with that decision to take only two tyres, and slipped out of the leading runners, his place taken instead by Matt Kenseth.
The sun was starting to go low in the sky and the track was moving fully into shade as Bobby Labonte spun in turn 4 on lap 99, bringing out the second caution of the evening, just after Dale Earnhardt Jr had managed to crack the top five with a pass on AJ Allmendinger. Junior was looking curiously strong tonight, and his massive fan club was roaring its approval at every step of the way.
With track temperatures still at 120 degrees despite the setting sun, ice and water was the order of the day from the broiling drivers. Kasey Kahne got more overheated than anyone, with a pit lane speeding penalty sending him on a drive-thru before the restart on lap 103. After Hamlin, Kenseth and Edwards all needed adjustments in pit lane, it was David Ragan who won the race back to the track followed by David Reutimann and Juan Montoya with Hamlin and Kenseth dropping back to fourth and fifth.
Matt Kenseth was quickly back in the lead, while further back this stint was undoing all Dale's good work as he got loose and fell off the pace and out of the top ten, getting passed on all sides - he'd have to work his way back up all over again. Denny Hamlin was up into second place, but on lap 138 he was passed by Carl Edwards and he was soon on the radio to say that he feared the engine was failing on him. "It's dying", he mourned, but in fact it kept on ticking.
Kenseth dropped the lead for just a single lap during the next cycle of green flag pit stops. Kurt Busch was one of the few drivers to seem completely happy with how his car was running and just took tyres and fuel, but a dozen laps later he suddenly felt one of the wheels go loose and was forced into a second visit to pit road under green flag on lap 160 - a costly loss of time that put him a lap down.
Kurt's luck was somewhat in, however, as the next 22 laps saw a sequence of rapid fire cautions - for debris on lap 171; for Jamie McMurray blowing an engine on lap 182; and for Casey Mears and Landon Cassill making contact on lap 188. By the end of it, Kurt was back on the lead lap again and what had looked to be a horribly fruitless slog of an evening was looking rather better for the elder Busch sibling.
Things got back green flag racing for an extended period from lap 193, with Kenseth back in the lead ahead of Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Juan Montoya; Ambrose got the better start and took the lead for half a dozen laps but Kenseth was soon back in charge again and starting to pull away.
Heat was still a chronic problem for almost everyone, with David Ragan even reporting that the ice he had taken at the previous pit stop was now turning to steam in the car and literally cooking him; just as well Kimi Raikkonen hadn't got it into his head to try this Sprint Cup race as well, after his highly vocal heat- and water-related trauma in the Nationwide on Friday night. As a new cycle of pit stops began with Kevin Harvick on lap 221, everyone was calling for more supplies of water and ice to be ready for them.
While Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out to lead a lap, everyone else sequenced through pit road; Regan Smith came in to pit lane only to have a missing lug nut on exit and be recalled to pit road. Tony Stewart sought an off-sync pit strategy and stayed out accompanied by Kurt Busch; Stewart had finally come into the pits ceding the lead to Busch when the sixth caution of the night came out for Mike Bliss stalling on track near to pit road. That gave Busch the chance to pit under caution - most satisfactory for the #22, all things considered.
Marcos Ambrose led the restart on lap 237 just after sundown, ahead of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, David Ragan and Paul Menard: but Menard got high, lost grip on the marbles and hit the wall in turn 2 to then spin down the track without collecting anyone bringing out the seventh caution three laps later, with Martin Truex Jr. also sustaining rear end damage when Brian Vickers ran into the back of him in the aftermath.
At the next green flag, the demon restarter Kyle Busch nailed it and easily took the lead from Ambrose, and led through to his next green flag pit stop on lap 278 - but the pit sequence was interrupted a few laps later by another caution on lap 282 for debris in turn 3. Once again the race sank into a repeat cycle of rapid yellows, with a ninth caution on lap 289 when David Starr hit the wall, and a tenth when Landon Cassill slid through the grass on lap 295 after getting tapped into a spin by Regan Smith. Cassill even reprised Carl Edwards' feat of last week of caving in the front of the car in a dip in the undulating surface as he went.
The restart on lap 301 was no more successful: David Gilliland got loose and made contact with Mark martin, the two of them then collecting Ryan Newman in the ensuing wreck. This gave the leaders a chance for a stop under caution giving them a chance of making it home with only one more stop.
Jeff Gordon led the restart and got a good jump away from Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt. Jr. at the green flag. Now, with the skies pitch black, everyone was finding it difficult to keep up the adjustments with the changing track conditions, and we saw in quick succession Joey Logano brush the wall and then Stenhouse Jr. hitting the wall next time around - not for the first time tonight.
But it was Kyle Busch going for a spin all by himself on lap 318 that brought out the 12th caution of the evening, the #18 taking to the grass and for once not following the Edwards/Cassill line of finding a car-wrecking undulation along the way.
There was an interesting mix of pit stop strategies on display with Gordon among those to come in for tyres and fuel, but Kasey Kahne taking point as one of those to risk staying out. Kevin Harvick was running second, while Greg Biffle - despite all those overheating problems early on in the day - was now battling with Earnhardt Jr. over third place.
By lap 343 Kahne was being warned that his pit stop was imminent after having opted to stay out previously, and a green flag stint would hurt him if everyone else get a caution later on. But the Gods were smiling on him, if not on Kyle Busch: for the second time in less than thirty laps, Kyle went for a spin after hitting the outside wall. The #18 crawled to the garage, a bad night for Kyle, but great timing indeed for Kasey who simply couldn't have asked for better.
After the pit stops (which saw Jimmie Johnson penalised and sent to the back of the lead lap after taking off with an adjustment wrench still fitted to the top of the #48) the race went green with 51 laps to the finish - very much touch and go for anyone trying to make it all the way on a single tank of gas.
Gordon was in front, with Biffle, Ragan, Keselowski and Kahne - and they were quickly joined by Earnhardt Jr., who was long over his mid-race wobble and back to a very strong, solid performance. Biffle soon proved the cream of this crop and took over the lead, and he would be immovable from the lead for the next 49 laps. You'll notice - 49 laps, when the race distance is 51 ...
The one common theme on team radios now was instruction to "Save fuel at all costs!" Even so, they would need caution laps and absolutely no overtime if they were going to make this work, it was clear. But as the lap counter clicked remorselessly upwards, a caution stubbornly refused to appear. The way it was going, the entire field could end up running dry before the chequered flag and no one at all would win this thing.
Seven laps shy of full race distance, Matt Kenseth had to concede defeat and made a dive for pit lane and some fuel; Jeff Gordon followed his lead two laps later after his pace started to drop from fuel starvation. And then, finally, the fourteenth caution of the evening came out.
It was not good news for Jimmie Johnson in the #48, because it was his engine that had blown up on him just four laps - six miles - shy of the 600 mile race distance: how galling to fall so close through mechanical failure. The frustration and pent-up stress was clear form Johnson's pit crew chief who was caught by surprise and exclaimed "F***ing kidding me!" over the team radio, which unfortunately was being broadcast live on the telecast at the time. Cue one very quick apology from the race commentators.
Now what? We were in green-and-white chequered overtime conditions which meant that the race would run at least two laps longer, and fuel had already been marginal for cars to make it home in the first place. Everyone pulled out every trick in the book to preserve every last drop of fuel under the caution, with Earnhardt Jr. cutting the engine altogether as everyone crawled along the inner apron of the track, taking turns pushing team mates to try and eke out the gas.
For some of the drivers, no trick would do it: Greg Biffle and David Ragan finally had to pit, while Kasey Kahne ended up running dry when the time came for the restart. which saw Brad Keselowski get caught out and end up rear-ending the #4 when the green came out. While Jeff Burton got caught out by the aftermath and spun into the infield, David Ragan and Joey Logano impressively threaded through the mayhem and made up a bunch of positions before anyone noticed what was going on.
At the white flag in overtime on lap 401, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had emerged in the lead after an impressive getaway at the restart ahead of the trouble sparked by Kahne running dry. Junior Nation erupted: all he had to do was make it another 1.5 miles and the win was his, an end to a 104-race drought without a trip to victory lane. Surely he would make it? After having seen the leader at the white flag throw it away at the Indianapolis 500, surely we weren't going to get an action replay happen in the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 as well?
That's exactly what we saw. With some 500 feet to go, the engine of Earnhardt's #88 coughed, spluttered - and died. Somewhat like JR Hildebrand in the Indy 500 the car would eventually make its way over the finish line, but he would be in seventh place by then.
He had been passed by David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose by then, but all of these drivers were themselves giving chase to the #29 of Kevin Harvick, a driver who had barely registered all evening and who had led only a single lap during a pit stop sequence. But again, as Indy had taught us just a few hours earlier, you only have to lead one lap of the entire race to win - it just has to be the right lap. When it comes to picking that "right lap", there's none better than the man who has shown time and again that he's deserved the nickname of "The Closer" in NASCAR.
And how did Harvick feel about his race win? Frankly he just seemed relieved for it to be over and behind him, and he couldn't wait to be out of Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"Nothing against this race track, I just don't like racing here. It just doesn't fit what I do ... I griped and griped and griped all freaking day long about how terrible it was. I just have a bad attitude here," he said, winning no friends among the locals. "Even though we won, I'm still miserable ... In about 30 minutes, I'll be happy - when we drive out of that tunnel and leave the month of May behind."
Junior was more philosophical. "I'm disappointed we didn't win. I know all our fans were disappointed to come so close," he said, having known all along that the fuel gambit was a big stretch. "We were a top-five car [but] we weren't supposed to win," Earnhardt admitted. "We played our hand, and those other guys came in. I tried to save a ton of gas, but I know I didn't save enough. I tried to save as much as I could."
"It's amazing that we can race 600 miles and it comes down to a green-white chequered finish and fuel mileage," said Kurt Busch, who recorded his best finish so far in a rather lacklustre 2011 season in fourth place. "It worked out, and we made the right calculations to make it to the end of the race," he said, before admitting: "We got lucky ... People were spinning their tires and struggling to get fuel to their carburetor.
"That's the excitement that this sport brings," he said, before gratefully shuffling away to loosen up after spending nearly five hours cramped up in a stock car emphatically not built for comfort.
Maybe this is a young man's game, in which case - welcome to Sprint Cup, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who survived those occasional brushes with the wall to last the entire race and finish on the lead lap in 11th place, an impressive series début for the 23-year-old. He'll probably have fonder memories of Charlotte than Kevin Harvick seems to have - and certainly happier than poor Dale Earnhardt Jr...Full results and times available