Points leader Brad Keselowski led 140 of the 334 laps but in the end it was Clint Bowyer and his Michael Waltrip Racing team that stretched the fuel mileage to win his third race of the 2012 season in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday night.
Bowyer used fuel mileage and pit strategy at Sonoma and Richmond earlier in the season to score wins and repeated that same feat tonight.
"I want to do a burnout, am I ever going to get to do a burnout?" Bowyer asked jokingly in his victory lane interview after running out of gas before he could celebrate his win. "We have had cars all year long capable of winning and to be able to win three times for me and you know everybody, we have led laps and we have just had a great year."
Keselowski, who came in with a 14 point lead on Jimmie Johnson, is usually the king of fuel mileage. But that was not the case tonight as he had to settle for an 11th place finish. Denny Hamlin and Johnson both used a great pit call on a caution on lap 223 to set them up to make the finish like Bowyer on fuel. Hamlin took second and is now 15 points back in third place and Johnson finished third and cut Keselowski's lead in half to seven points with five races left.
"I'm glad to gain on the 2 car and go to the next one," Johnson said. "This thing is still wide open for anybody."
The night started with Greg Biffle on the pole. He and Mark Martin traded the lead back and forth the first five laps a few times before the first caution flew on lap 11 for Matt Kenseth. He spun out when his left rear tire went flat which cost him a lap.
On the lap 16 restart things got backed up and Jeff Burton and David Ragan made the worst contact to bring the caution right back out. Burton finished 28th and Ragan 34th. Also in the incident Tony Stewart ran into the back of Keselowski. Both cars had damage but nothing that slowed the cars.
With Biffle still leading on lap 36 the third caution came out when Paul Menard blew a tire after making contact with the wall a few laps earlier. Menard finished 27th. Biffle took four tires on the pit stop and was the tenth car off pit road due to a number of two tire stops. One of the those was by Johnson, who was the first car off pit road. Keselowski though was the leader as he did not pit because he pitted on the previous caution.
On the lap 42 restart Marcos Ambrose, who also stayed out, grabbed the lead for two laps before Keselowski would assert himself as the dominant car.
Lap 62 saw the end of Regan Smith's night. He was subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 and had driven up to tenth when the motor let go. It did not bring out a caution but it ended Smith's night in 38th.
The next stretch of racing featured two green flag stops for everyone and the top three in the standings swapping the running order up front.
On lap 147 Ambrose went behind the wall so his No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports team could make repairs to the rear spoiler of his car after he got lose and knocked into the wall. He would finish 33rd.
The fourth caution came out on lap 167 exactly at the halfway point of the race for debris which was a beverage can. Sam Hornish Jr. got the free pass to put 16 cars on the lead lap. Hamlin had the lead with Keselowski second and Johnson third. That was before Johnson and the No. 48 team decided to take two tires while everyone else took four.
Johnson led the field to the restart on lap 173 but dropped back to seventh right away as Biffle took advantage with a nice outside move to take over the race lead. That lasted until lap 180 when Keselowski worked by Biffle. Then another round of green flag stops hit between laps 218 and 222 for the top three drivers in the points. On that round of stops Jeff Gordon was caught speeding which resulted in him losing a lap on a pass through penalty.
The fifth and final caution of the race would fall on lap 223 right after the green flag stops had ended. From there with 111 laps left teams knew it was going to be a fuel stretch to make it a one stop race. While Bowyer and Keselowski elected to stay out on this caution, Hamlin and Johnson pitted to top off their fuel. The decision worked for Bowyer, Hamlin and Johnson but not for Keselowski.
Keselowski led the field to the lap 228 restart but then with 59 laps to go he ran out of gas and coasted about a quarter of a lap to pit road. By the time the round of green flag stops was complete Keselowski found himself in 12th place. That gave the lead to Biffle again.
It was known though that the only three cars that looked like they would be able to save fuel and not pit again were Bowyer, Hamlin and Johnson. As it played out all three stretched the fuel just enough to take the first three positions. Biffle finished fourth, Kyle Busch fifth, and Mark Martin sixth. Those were the only cars on the lead lap. Edwards took seventh, Kasey Kahne eighth, Joey Logano ninth and Martin Truex Jr. tenth.
The Chase standings look like a three man race although Bowyer made a statement that he is not out of it with five races left. Keselwoski leads Johnson by seven points and Hamlin by 15. Bowyer is fourth, 28 points back. Kahne is 35 back in fifth followed by Biffle in sixth at minus 43. Truex is 49 back, Stewart and Gordon are 50 behind with Harvick 56 out and Kenseth 67 makers down. Earnhardt Jr. is now 86 points back and will also miss next Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway.
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