Carl Edwards, NASCAR's favorite son in Columbia, Mo., would have been in excellent shape if Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway were 100 miles instead of 600. Edwards' No. 99 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford held the lead for 61 laps during daylight at the front end of NASCAR's longest race of the year, but couldn't keep up the pace over the long haul, as Kevin Harvick outlasted a fuel-starved Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a two-lap sprint to the finish to win his third Cup race of the season and his first ever at Charlotte.
As in Sunday's other big race, the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the leader coming out of the backstretch and into the final two turns in the final lap at the Coca-Cola 600 only had a little over a quarter-mile to go to secure the victory. Earnhardt was in that position at Charlotte Sunday evening. Earnhardt actually had no chance, having run out of fuel on the backstretch of the white-flag lap. The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was coasting when Harvick sailed by on the final turn, only his second race lead in the entire race, and easily took the checkered flag.
Harvick has led only three laps total in his three Sprint Cup wins this season.
Edwards held the race lead for 61 laps in the first 100 of the scheduled 400 laps. A 14th caution flag on lap 396, brought about by a blown engine in Jimmie Johnson's No, 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, forced the race into a two-lap green-white-checkered overtime session.
Speaking to reporters afterwards about his strong start in the No. 99 car, Edwards said: "We were great, but it was just a track position game. By chance, everything we did ended up being bad for track position. "We were loose at the wrong times, and I made some moves out there that put us in some spots that set us back, and that's racing," said the Sprint Cup points leader and winner of NASCAR's All-Star race last weekend at the same track.
Edwards ended up in 16th place in the Coca-Cola 600, immediately behind Clint Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., who came in 15th. On several occasions in the 12 Sprint Cup races this season, Edwards and Richard Childress Racing's Bowyer have either qualified or ended right next to each other in the final race results.
As the final laps counted down, Earnhardt, who was running among the leaders, was keenly aware that his fuel situation was going to be extremely close to make it to the end. Earnhardt's new crew chief this year at Hendrick Motorsports, Steve Letarte, who used to be Jeff Gordon's crew chief, made the call for Earnhardt to stay out on track and go for broke for the win.
"I just do what my dang crew chief says, and I believe that was the right call because if we would have pitted, I don't know where we would have finished," Earnhardt said. "To come so close. But if we had won that race, it would have been a gift."
Earnhardt. whose NASCAR winless streak has now stretched to 105 consecutive Sprint Cup races, came stunningly close to ending three years of constant frustration at Charlotte on Sunday.
Greg Biffle, one of Bowyer's teammates at Childress, and Matt Kenseth of Roush-Fenway probably had the best car on track at the end, but fell victim to natural failings that were to big to overcome too late in the race, setting both cars back in the pack at the finish. Biffle, whose No. 16 car was leading the race at lap 399, three from the end, was forced to pit for fuel, and Kenseth was also battling a fuel issue. The two cars ended up 13th and 14th, respectively.
Everything now shifts to Kansas City, site of the next stop on the Sprint Cup Series tour this season. The 13th race of the season, the STP 400, will be held at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., this weekend. It will be the first of two races at Kansas this year. The second race will be Oct. 9, the fourth race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
For Edwards and Bowyer, next weekend's Cup race at Kansas Speedway will represent a homecoming. Both drivers are seeking their first win at Kansas in his Sprint Cup career.