Earnhardt couldn't call AAA to bail him out of this one

Jun 1 2011 - 4:30pm

CONCORD, N.C. -- Richard Childress had given up hope, and was on his way back to his condo to beat the nasty, bumper-to-bumper post-race traffic. He figured his driver Kevin Harvick had no shot at catching Dale Earnhardt Jr.

But, still monitoring the race, he heard Harvick's spotter screaming: "He's out of gas! He's out of gas!"

Childress, the best friend of Junior's dearly departed dad, didn't struggle with mixed emotions. Dale Jr. will win a race someday. But now was the time to turn around and celebrate.

"We all want to see Dale Jr. win, but not at our expense," Childress said.

Hours after rookie JR Hildebrand crashed on the final lap of the Indianapolis 500, Earnhardt's Chevy sputtered out of gas as he approached the final turn, allowing Harvick to zip by him to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday night.

It was a rough Memorial Day weekend for two National Guard cars chasing victories in two of the most celebrated races in each of the circuits.

The finish Sunday night wasn't quite as dramatic as the one in Indianapolis in the afternoon, but still stunning, especially when the man who ran out of gas -- and luck -- happens to be the most popular driver on the NASCAR circuit.

"I'm disappointed we didn't win, but if we had won that race it would have been a gift," said Earnhardt, who coasted to a seventh-place finish. "...We were lucky to get out of here with anything after running out of gas."

David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top 5.

Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevy went up in smoke with four laps to go, bringing out the 14th caution and a green-white- checkered finish. It set up the wild last lap in which Earnhardt seemed poised to break a winless streak that now stretches 105 races and dates back to June 15, 2008.

"I feel so stinkin' bad for him," Harvick said. "I know how bad he wants it, but it will happen."

It's most definitely happening for Harvick, who has won a season-high three races this season despite only leading nine laps. Sunday marked his 17th career victory.

"It's not about having the fastest car all the time," Harvick said, "it's about putting yourself in position to win."

Earnhart's crew chief, Steve Letarte, opted out of any fuel stops toward the end of the race, a go-for-broke strategy that almost worked.

"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. "We weren't supposed to make it. We played our hand. I tried to save a ton of gas, as much as I could."

It was a night of attrition in this, the longest race of the NASCAR season, with 14 caution flags and a flurry of drivers getting caught up in the bump and grind.

One of the most dramatic moments came when David Gilliland and Mark Martin got jammed up into the wall, as Martin's car got the brunt of it on the inside portion. Ryan Newman was part of the collateral damage.

"It's s shame," Martin said. "Everybody was working hard and want to finish these things off."

"Tough way to end a good night," Gilliland said.

All these problems were reflective of a race that is a survival of the fittest -- lasting four-plus hours, a total of 600 miles.

The grind of the Coca-Cola 600 was unbearable at times.

Temperatures in cars reached as high as 137 degrees Fahrenheit (Tony Stewart's number). Debris was flying all over the place. Casey Mears said just before the halfway point that there was so much debris and bits of tire in his eyes, "I can hardly open them."

And then there was Greg Biffle, who managed to finish 13th despite issues with the driver cooling system in his car early in the race.

"The tape you put on the end of the hose folded over and I couldn't get it on my helmet!" he screamed at his pit crew, dropping in a few expletives to punctuate his unhappiness in other conversations.

"We'll talk about it Tuesday," he said.

The talk Sunday night was not about air-conditioning.

It was all about gas. And unlike the rest of us, Earnhardt couldn't call AAA to bail him out.

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