By Brian Willwerth
The 2011 Coca-Cola 600 will be remembered more for who didn’t win the race, than who did.
In the end, it was Kevin Harvick bringing his #29 car to victory lane for the third time this season.
But the headline centers around Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. He hasn’t won a race in nearly three years. Yet there he was, on the verge of breaking his long losing drought, in NASCAR’s longest race. He had the lead on the final lap. Then the unthinkable happened for Junior and his followers:
His gas tank went dry.
He ran out of fuel on the backstretch. Heading into Turn 4, Junior slowed down considerably. That allowed Harvick – and several other drivers -to go cruising past him. Earnhardt settled for a seventh place finish.
The drama began to unfold when Jimmie Johnson‘s engine blew up with four laps to go. That set up a green-white-checkered finish. On the final restart, Earnhardt raced past Kasey Kahne for the lead. Kahne got hit from behind by Brad Keselowski, causing other cars to wreck. But the race stayed green, so it was up to Junior to conserve fuel. He took the white flag as the pro-Junior crowd at Charlotte Motor Speedway went into a frenzy. But that frenzy turned to disbelief in the end.
You have to go all the way back to Michigan in 2008 to find the last time Earnhardt Jr. went to victory lane – a span of 105 races.
David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger rounded out the top five.
Since a lot of people enjoy NASCAR for the wrecks, it’s time for first-ever Noontime Sports “Wreck Wrap.”
*The biggest one was a three-car incident involving Mark Martin, Ryan Newman and David Gilliland.
*Landon Cassill got spun around by Regan Smith, and Cassill ended up with a big mouthful of the infield.
*Kyle Busch wrecked on his own – twice. He spun out in Turn 4, then whacked the wall in Turn 2 a few laps later.
*Paul Menard brought out the caution when he hit the wall in Turn 2. Shortly after the yellow flag waved, Brian Vickers ran into the back of Martin Truex Jr.
*Jamie McMurray blew an engine early in the race while battling Matt Kenseth for the lead.