Subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. - who had been forced out of the race after suffering a concussion at Talladega last weekend - Regan Smith was having a decent early run. He had moved up into the top ten by lap 62 when the #88 car suddenly started sending out smoke signals: it was not happy, and the dismayed stand-in driver had to bring it into the garage area. Emergency surgery wasn't enough, and his big break in the limelight was over too early.
"It's disappointing," admitted Smith, who said it wasn't immediately clear what had gone wrong with the Chevy engine. "We are still looking at everything. I think the important part was is that we had a really fast race car. 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 dialled in."
Smith's exit from the race hadn't triggered a caution, and on lap 74 Keselowski gave up the lead signalling the start of a round of pit stops, having not joined the rush to pit lane under the previous caution. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart were among the last to come in on lap 85 and once the stops were completed it was Keselowski back out in front with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five.
Keselowski was visibly slower during this stint - perhaps trying to lean out this tank of gas to bring him back into sync with the others - and as a result Johnson on his fresher tyres was able to swoop past him through turns 3 and 4 on lap 97 to take the lead for himself. Keselowski would also loose second place to Hamlin after getting stuck behind the slow lapped traffic of Juan Montoya and series returnee AJ Allmendinger.
Keselowski pitted from third place on lap 125 for the next round of pit stops, and this time it was only four laps or so until the rest of the field started to cycle through pit lane as well indicating that he had managed to get good mileage during that subdued part of the race. Johnson had a poor stop and dropped to third place, with Hamlin in the lead ahead of Keselowski once the sequence was complete. However, Johnson wasted no time in dispatching Keselowski and taking back second place on lap 141.
Johnson managed to catch up to Hamlin as they hit traffic, but before he could do anything about recapturing the lead the track was under its first debris caution on lap 166 which allowed a round of pit stops under the slightly saner yellow flag conditions. Johnson went for a two-tyre call while everyone else opted for four to emerge from pit exit ahead of Hamlin, with Keselowski alongside Biffle on the second row. It was Biffle who judged the restart on lap 173 the best to go three-wide and jump into the front: Johnson and Hamlin were forced to back off, allowing Keselowski to follow Biffle through and claim second place for himself - putting him in the best place to capitalise on Biffle getting the wiggles on lap 180.
Hamlin settled into second place with Kyle Busch taking third as Johnson appeared to be having some serious issues with his latest two-tyre call which saw him drop out of the top six. The five-time champion would have been the most relieved man in Charlotte when the next round of green flag pit stops began from lap 215 with Martin Truex Jr. coming in.
Now fully back on sync, Brad Keselowski held out to lap 222 before making his stop, and Clint Bowyer was the last man to stop a lap later just before the second and final debris caution of the day was declared. The timing proved a split decision for teams as to whether to come back in again quite so soon, given that the end of the race was still in the extreme edge of being able to make it on just one more stop: Johnson, Harvick, Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish Jr. and Aric Almirola took the chance to come in again but the majority stayed out. Having literally just been on pit lane before the yellows, it was probably Clint Bowyer who had the easiest call to stay out.
At the restart, the top six were Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer; Hamlin had dropped back to tenth and Johnson to 11th as a result of coming in, but both were soon working their way forward again once the green flag came out. Keselowski meanwhile had picked up some debris on the front grille of the #2, but in the cooler night air it didn't seem to adversely affect the performance of the car and he continued to run out on front.
Bowyer's team mate Martin Truex was once again the man to signal time for another round of green flag pit stops on lap 259: he clearly couldn't make it all the way to the finish from there without a further stop. Neither could those who followed his lead, even Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch coming in on lap 268 or Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth stretching it to lap 274.