Earnhardt runs out of gas, Harvick steals a win
by Matt Taliaferro
Jimmie Johnson was still celebrating in Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 21, 2010, when runner-up Kevin Harvick addressed the media and uttered a quote that still bring impish grins to this day.
Harvick’s assessment of Johnson’s luck involved a golden horseshoe that was stuck in, well, use your imagination.
Johnson would win the next weekend in Las Vegas and again two races later at Bristol, the first three of six wins garnered last year.
However, for all the luck Johnson seemingly has enjoyed en route to five consecutive Sprint Cup titles, he can’t hold a candle — or a horseshoe — to Harvick’s 2011 fortune. And Sunday evening’s Coca-Cola 600 was the latest example for last season’s third-place championship finisher.
Harvick conserved enough fuel down the stretch, and zipped past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his empty gas tank off of Turn 4 on the last lap at Charlotte Motor Speedway to earn his third win of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
In those three victories — the other two coming, ironically, at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville — Harvick has led a grand total of nine laps.
“It’s one of those deals where you get toward the end of the race and I feel like we can take the car to another level and we always have something left,” Harvick said of his three wins. “You’ve got to be there at the end to make something happen. It’s just never been our style to lead a bunch of laps.”
As fate would have it, Johnson was partly responsible for getting Harvick into a position to capitalize when his engine expired with five laps remaining. Awaiting a green-white-checker finish, race leader Greg Biffle was forced to pit road for a splash of fuel. Kasey Kahne inherited the lead, with Earnhardt lined up to his inside and Harvick fifth.
When the green flag waved Kahne’s car sputtered, then stalled, creating a logjam in the outside lane. Jeff Burton spun as a result, but the race remained green. Earnhardt sprinted away, seemingly assured of his first win in 104 races, but as he entered Turn 3 on the final lap, the fuel cell of his No. 88 Chevy went dry as well, and Harvick, who had diced his way past Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, screamed by as the two exited Turn 4.
“I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth,” Harvick said of spoiling what would have been a crowd-pleasing win for Earnhardt. “I think everybody sitting up here would say we want the 88 to win and they’re so close to winning and both times (Charlotte and Martinsville) they had a chance to win. 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, and I know how bad he wants (to win).”
For his part, Earnhardt, who placed seventh in the final rundown, viewed it as “just one of those racin’ deals,” as they like to say.
“We weren’t supposed to make it (on fuel),” he said. “We played our hand. I tried to save a ton of gas — as much as I could. I’m disappointed we didn’t win, to come so close. But if we had won that race, it would have been a gift.”
David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger had enough gas to go the distance, as well, and rounded out the top 5.
The 600 win was the third “crown jewel” victory for Harvick. He also has wins in the Daytona 500 (2007) and Brickyard 400 (2003). He lacks only a win in the Southern 500 at Darlington to complete the career grand slam.