Junior's gamble doesn't pay off; Harvick prevails

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

The longest day in racing was capped off with yet another near miss, this time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. playing the role of spoilee. Junior, with his winless streak at 104 races and counting, had the lead going into the final two turns of the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 when his engine sputtered.

"I'm out of fuel," he calmly said over his radio.

As his car limped around Turn 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick, as he's wont to do these days, roared by Junior to steal the win – his third of the season.

For Harvick, the victory all but secures him a spot in the Chase. NASCAR's new wildcard provides two spots in the Chase for the drivers with the most wins not in the top 10. Harvick sits second in the standings, but even if he falls out, he'll easily grab one of those wild-card berths.

"I think everybody sitting up here would say we want the 88 [Earnhardt] to win and they're so close to winning and both times they had a chance to win," said Harvick, who also passed Junior to win at Martinsville earlier this season. "We are going to do what we have to do to win the races, and today it all just worked out strategy wise that we won the race. But I feel so stinking bad for him."

As for Junior, the non-win is a bona fide moral victory. During last week's All-Star festivities, he looked positively awful, not contending in either the Showdown or the All-Star Race itself.

Would Charlotte be the undoing to a season that's been, to this point, a re-birth of sorts for the struggling superstar?

No, and not even close.

While Earnhardt certainly wasn't the car to beat Sunday night – that distinction went to Matt Kenseth, whose chances were doomed when he had to pit late – he was a player in the top 10 for most of the 603 miles. Jimmie Johnson can't lay claim to that. Neither can Jeff Gordon nor Mark Martin, meaning Junior was the top Hendrick Motorsports dog in what is the most grueling race of the season.

Early on in the race, a thermometer inside Tony Stewart's car topped 130 degrees, so you can only imagine how Greg Biffle must have felt when his cooling system broke.

From its very first running way back in 1960, the 600 has always been an endurance race, one devised to challenge that little 500-miler they run up in Indianapolis every Memorial Day Weekend. This year's race was no different.

Carl Edwards started the day as the man to beat, but he and his team couldn't keep up with the changing track conditions. Kenseth and Biffle took turns up front, too, but both fell victim to fuel mileage.

As the laps counted down, Junior's crew chief Steve Letarte knew they were probably going to be short on fuel, but as he told his driver over the radio, they "came here to win," and with that, their bed was pretty much made.

They would go for the victory, a gamble made all the more easier because Junior was already solidly inside the top 10 in the standings. If he wasn't, they might have had to make a more conservative call.

On the final restart, Junior lined up next to Kasey Kahne, who was also running low on fuel. When Kahne didn't get up to speed on the start, Junior inherited the lead and checked out. Only an engine gagging for fuel would allow the field to reel him in.

Of course, that's exactly what happened. With a wreck behind him but no caution – a non-call that is sure to spark some debate – Junior took the white flag. But as he ran down the backstretch, his engine sputtered and Harvick drove right by.

Afterward, though, Junior was anything but despondent.

"It was a long race and really hard race, and I haven't ran good here in a long time," he said. "We ran really, really good tonight. Real good. I'm really happy with that. Wins are going to come. We just got to keep working. We're going to get our share."

A dozen races into the season, Junior sits fourth in the standings, just six points behind five-time defending champ Johnson.

No, he didn't get the win, and yes, his winless streak now stands at 105 races. But there's no doubting it now, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back.