NASCAR » 30 May 2011
Harvick steals Coca-Cola 600 from Junior
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.
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