Hours after an IndyCar car with a JR behind the wheel and a National Guard sponsorship on the side lost the Indianapolis 500 with a last-lap crash, a stock car with a Junior behind the wheel and a National Guard sponsorship lost the lead of the Coca-Cola 600 after running out of fuel. A potentially tremendous day for a military sponsor on Memorial Day evaporated into one of consolation. A potentially storybook day for racing in the United States could have collapsed into one of failed promise. But JR Hildebrand displayed poise uncommon for his age, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. a continued encouraged demeanor suggesting he may eventually return to Victory Lane.
Whereas Dan Wheldon rekindled his love affair with a storied old track in winning the Indianapolis 500 for the second time, Kevin Harvick left Charlotte Motor Speedway having finally conquered a track that has been a source of agitation since the beginning of his career. After finishing second in his first start there in 2001, Harvick has little success and little patience with the home ballpark of NASCAR.
"When we pull into Charlotte, I apologize before I even get to the race track because there's nothing -- this is a great race track -- it's a great facility, and I know everybody loves coming here because it's close to home," he said. "For me it's just been that thing in my mind, that one race track that just frustrates the hell out of me that I can't figure out.
"When they threw the green flag tonight, we'd fought the same thing for last week and this week, and I said, 'Well, we haven't fixed it in two weeks,' and Gil said, 'Well, we've got four more hours and we're going to fix you right up.' Usually when he says something like that, it always comes back to haunt me."
Harvick was skeptical as usual during the race, but finally put himself in position to spring to the front on the last lap of the green/white/checker finish.
"It's great to be a part of this team because everybody knows who I am," he said. "They don't get down on me, and nobody gets really down on each other. And if we wouldn't have won the race, everybody would have went home and we would have said we'd do this different or that different and we'd have all smiled about it by the time we got done at 8 on Monday morning after our competition meeting."
Earnhardt Jr. left nearly as contented as Harvick with a seventh-place result, saying "this was probably, in all honesty, the best turnout of events for us besides winning the race," after running out of fuel on the backstretch and coasting the rest of the distance.
"I believe we needed more than 500 feet," he said of crew chief Steve Letarte's assessment. "We weren't supposed to win tonight. We played our hand and those other guys came in. I tried to save a ton of gas, but I know I didn't save enough. I tried to save as much as I could. I'm disappointed we didn't win. I know all our fans were disappointed to come so close. We were a top-5 car. This was our Vegas car and it is really, really good so we will keep taking it to race tracks and running good. We were so fast at the start of the race and once the sun went down we kind of went back. We ran good tonight, I'm proud. I'm proud of my guys and I'm proud of the care we unloaded."
1. Kevin Harvick: He is NASCAR's living embodiment of the "victory from the jaws of defeat" bromide, again swooping in at the last possible moment to claim a win when he had, seconds before, not even been involved in the checkered-flag scenario. He led two laps. In passing Earnhardt Jr.'s fuel-depleted No. 88 Chevrolet for the win on the last lap of a green/white/checker finish, Harvick claimed his series-leading third win of the season and barring a massive downtick in production, further assured himself a spot in the Chase for the Championship, at least as a wild card.
2. Carl Edwards: A self-described victim of the "track position game," the points leader finished 16th after starting third and leading 61 laps. Carl Edwards and Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth (103) and Greg Biffle (50) combined to lead 214 of 402 laps, but Biffle had the highest finish among them at 13th.
3. Jimmie Johnson: A blown engine with four laps left in the scheduled distance transformed a mediocre race into a 28th-place finish, his worst since last fall at Bristol. It also provided his crew chief an open mile to swear in the general direction of the entire television audience, but, hey, that's life in the big leagues. Jimmie Johnson ceded second place in driver points to Harvick.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He is close. He is getting closer. He was about 500 feet close, according to crew chief Steve Letarte, who watched a victory sputter away like fuel through the carburetor Sunday night. Earnhardt Jr. eventually finished seventh after it appeared he was cruising off to his first win in 105 races.
5. David Ragan: A season-best, second-place finish rekindles hope that the 25-year-old David Ragan can become a more viable member of a strong Roush Fenway camp, led by points leader Edwards, Biffle and Kenseth. It also raises questions about why he's finished 20th or worse in half his races this season.