A rare strategy gaffe by Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe has intensified the Chase for the Sprint Cup title run.
Clint Bowyer took advantage Saturday night, stretching his gas tank to the limits to win Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Denny Hamlin finished second and Jimmie Johnson was third, as both championship contenders closed the gap on Keselowski, who blew a chance to win despite a dominant car and finished 11th.
Bowyer’s third win of the season was reminiscent of his second, a regular-season-ending victory at Richmond International Raceway — also on a Saturday night, when he ran out of gas during his victory burnout. At Charlotte, Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota had to be pushed by crewmembers to victory lane.
“What a wild race. I want to do a burnout!” Bowyer said from victory lane. “Am I ever going to get to do a burnout?”
An empty gas tank was the downfall for Keselowski, who had won two of the first four Chase races but missed a top-10 finish for just the second time in 15 events.
As a result, his 14-point lead over Johnson was sliced in half to seven with five races to go. Hamlin moved to within 15 points of Keselowski, and Bowyer (28 back) jumped to fourth.
Keselowski led a race-high 140 laps but stayed out on the track too long near the race’s conclusion as his No. 2 Dodge sputtered to his pit stall with 58 laps (of 334) to go. The miscalculation — Wolfe had encouraged Keselowski to stay on the track — cost Keselowski his lead. And a pit stop that lasted 21 seconds because Keselowski’s car had to be re-fired exacerbated the problem. The issues dropped Keselowski outside the top 10.
Even then, Keselowski didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the finish so Wolfe summoned him to pit again for gas and two tires with 23 laps to go, and he re-entered the track 16th before rallying to 11th in the final laps.
“It’s like playing blackjack,” Keselowski said. “Sometimes you’re going to get a good deal, but you’re not going to win them all.
“We didn’t lose too much. We got 11th where everything kind of fell against us.”
Everyone had to keep one eye on the fuel gauge, including Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver half-lamented his runner-up finish, which came while he saved gas yet still finished only 0.417 seconds behind Bowyer.
“it’s tough because I’m sitting there thinking, I can go by this 15 or catch him just about any time I want,” Hamlin said. “But (crew chief) Darian (Grubb) is screaming at me to back it off.
“We could’ve left a race win on the table here … (But) we’ll take second and move on.”
Johnson also was in fuel-save mode in the final laps, much as he was during a fourth-place finish at Dover International Speedway two weeks ago.
“I wasn’t really … too excited seeing (Keselowski) run out because I didn’t want to run out myself,” Johnson said.
“We’re getting a lot better at this fuel-mileage racing,” he added. “It’s a tough thing to do. We’ve worked hard to get it right. We’re still not the best car out there, but we’re making it work week in and week out … It’s part of the game right now, for whatever reason.”
Greg Biffle was fourth, followed by Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.
The race was the first since 1979 without an Earnhardt as Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out with a concussion. The announcement was made Thursday after Earnhardt sought medical attention for a lingering headache from the 25-car accident Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.