CONCORD — To everyone else at Charlotte Motor Speedway it was a gamble, but to Carl Edwards’ crew, it was anything but a risk.
Edwards roared down pit road after the caution came out on lap 338 when there was debris spotted in turn four. Edwards was one of the few drivers to elect to come in at this time. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth all joined Edwards in making the stop with 62 laps to go.
The quartet elected to stretch their fuel and tires to the limit to win the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.
While those four decided to take the risk and get off the pit cycle, the majority of the field, including Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., elected to stay on the track. The rest of the drivers, pit crews and fans thought Biffle, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards and Kenseth would have to dive into the pits and get a splash of fuel to make it to the end.
Edwards seized the lead on lap 380 as driver after driver continued to make the left turn onto pit road. And other than a brief scare from Biffle in the closing laps, Edwards was able to cruise to his first victory with Joe Gibbs Racing and the 24th of his career. The win also secures a spot for Edwards in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Up to this point in the year, we have just basically done a good job holding it all together and staying focused, but we’ve not delivered the results that we all planned on,” Edwards said. “To get this win and to put ourselves in a position to be in the Chase and to be able to now take a deep breath and step back and work on all the little things that we know we need to work on to be a championship-level team, this is just a huge opportunity. I mean, it’s great.”
Darian Grubb, Edwards’ crew chief, added that everything lined up perfectly for the team to roll the dice and go for the win when the final caution came out because of the debris on the track.
“Two runs from the end, we realized that this was going to have the potential for a fuel-mileage race because we hit right on our fuel windows, then that last caution came out 12 laps before the fuel window that we wanted to pit on, and everybody pitted there because we had to,” Grubb said. “It was basically the end of the fuel run. And then when the actual last caution came out, it was right on the lap we were going to pit under green flag to make it to the end, and I was really surprised that a lot of people didn’t come down and pit when we did. We were actually planning to do two tires just to make sure we could get enough fuel to finish, and since hardly anybody came, we took four, fueled up and good to go to the end.”
Biffle, Edwards’ former teammate with Roush Fenway Racing last season, decided to go for the win. He continued to get closer and closer to the No. 19, but was forced to ease off when fuel became an issue.
“You know, I was putting a lot of pressure on Carl there. I started going with about 10 laps to go,” Biffle said. “The crew chief (Matt Puccia) told me ‘Save all you can, just stay in front of the 88,’ and I made a decision that I was going to try and beat Carl. You know, I got pretty close to him there, and then with two to go, the fuel light came on that the fuel pressure was low, and so I came around and had to start pushing the clutch in and shutting it off and coasting and try and preserve what fuel I had to make it back.”
The second-place finish was the best of the season for Biffle. Until the Coca-Cola 600, Biffle’s best finish came in the season-opening Daytona 500 when he was 10th.
Earnhardt Jr. finished third, followed by pole-sitter Matt Kenseth and Truex Jr. rounding out the top five. Ryan Newman was sixth, Brad Keselowski seventh, Hamlin finished eighth, Harvick was ninth and Kurt Busch was 10th.
Keselowski, Joey Logano, who finished 13th, and Ryan Blaney, who was 42nd, failed to give car owner Roger Penske a double victory Sunday. Juan Pablo Montoya, a Penske driver in the IndyCar series, won the Indianapolis 500 earlier in the day.
“It was a long race,” Keselowski said. “I hate to see it come down to fuel mileage, but that’s part of the game too.”
Jimmie Johnson, last year’s winner, was unable to repeat after spinning twice during the race in the same spot — coming out of turn 4. The first time, Johnson was able to avoid crashing into the wall or another driver on lap 91.
Despite the early problem, Johnson was able to battle back through the field and worked his way up to fifth before another spin on lap 275. This time, Johnson hit the wall on pit road and did severe front-end damage to his car, forcing it into the garage area for repairs.
Johnson finished 40th.
“We came in with an aggressive mindset to bring an aggressive set-up in the car, drive aggressively and take chances,” Johnson said. “We just don’t have anything to lose. Unfortunately we didn’t get long enough into the race for the aggressive set-up to come into play.
“Another 30-40 laps we would have had the car right where we wanted it,” he said. “I just didn’t make it there. I could have driven a little easier and tried not work so hard through traffic, but we said we were going to come in and swing for the fences. We did and I hit the fence.”
Reach managing editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 and follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.