Commentary

Fuel mileage dooms Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Updated: May 30, 2011, 2:12 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- About the only chance NASCAR had of equaling or even topping the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 for drama on Sunday was for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win.

It almost happened.

Like at Indianapolis, what seemed like days ago instead of hours, the car with the National Guard paint scheme and a driver with JR in his name came to the final turn at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the lead. Like at Indianapolis, that car didn't win.

Rookie J.R. Hildebrand hit the Turn 4 wall at Indy and allowed Dan Wheldon to come out of nowhere to win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., otherwise known as Junior, ran out of gas on the final lap and allowed Kevin Harvick to come out of nowhere to win.

Crazy.

Bizarre.

"It's tough, two races today," Earnhardt said after coasting to seventh. "I hope they [National Guard] don't feel too slighted by the fortunes we've had. That kid did a lot this morning in the Indy race. They should be real proud of their efforts. It was just an unfortunate situation for him passing a lapped car there."

[+] EnlargeKevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images/NASCARKevin Harvick, front, reeled in Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final turn to win Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.

Unlike Hildebrand, Earnhardt wasn't crushed by the finish because it had nothing to do with a foolish mistake. Only his fans who were hoping and praying the losing streak would end at 104 were left heartbroken.

Earnhardt was mentally prepared if he ran out of gas, which he says actually happened on the back straightaway.

There was little Hildebrand could have done to prepare for what happened to him.

"When he goes back, he'll have the confidence he didn't have," Earnhardt said of Hildebrand. "Me, too. I'm building up the confidence. It's a good thing."

Harvick doesn't lack for confidence. He may be the most confident driver in the garage, as he should be.

He came into Sunday's Sprint Cup race knowing it would take a miracle for him to win. Early on his car was so bad he told his crew there was nothing he could do to fix it.

But as car after car ran out of gas at the end, there he was, blowing past the field for his first points win at Charlotte and third win of the season with a combined nine laps led in them.

And it wasn't the first time he spoiled a win for Earnhardt this year, either. It happened earlier this year at Martinsville.

"I feel like complete crap, to tell you the truth," said Harvick, who improved three spots in the points standings to second. "Man, when I saw that thing [88] slowing down, I thought, 'Man, I really want to win the race, but why can't it be on a day when we're running bad or have something go wrong?"'

"I think everyone sitting up here would say we want the 88 to win."

Harvick said he was lucky. Let's retrace just how lucky. Heading toward the final restart, a green-white-checkered finish, Harvick was in sixth place. He moved up a spot when leader Greg Biffle pitted for fuel as the pace car left the track.

Then leader Kasey Kahne ran out of gas on the restart and fourth-place Brad Keselowski ran into the back of him, allowing Harvick to slide past both. That left Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin ahead of him, and both ran out of fuel on the backstretch.

NASCAR easily could have called a caution with cars seemingly all over the place on the restart -- Harvick teammate Jeff Burton among them -- but didn't. Perhaps the governing body realized that a victory by the sport's most popular driver might put it in contention with what happened at Indianapolis.

As it turned out the decision didn't put any driver in harm's way as everyone collected their cars before Earnhardt came back around for the white flag.

Then it was lump-in-the-throat time.

Actually, it was that way for Earnhardt before the restart with crew chief Steve Letarte telling him, "We came here to try to win it."

"I hear you," Earnhardt replied on his radio. "I'm just nervous."

I feel so stinking bad for him. I know how bad he wants it. It'll happen. If they keep running like that it'll happen.

-- Kevin Harvick on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak

Earnhardt didn't look nervous on the restart, jumping to a big lead. He didn't sound disappointed after it was over.

"Hey, be proud, man," Earnhardt radioed his crew.

Said Letarte: "You drove a great race, bud. We needed 500 more feet."

Harvick realized Earnhardt ran out of gas going into Turn 3 because his spotter was screaming louder than Junior Nation was moaning, frantically telling his driver to stay on the gas.

"I wasn't going to let off," Harvick said in his typical sarcastic style.

And give Harvick credit. For as poorly as he ran early, he saved enough fuel from 100 laps in to give himself a chance and live up to his new title as the best finisher in NASCAR.

That he was able to finish off a win at Charlotte, a track he absolutely despises, made it all the more sweet.

"When we pull into Charlotte I apologize even before we get to the racetrack," Harvick said. "It's a great racetrack. I know everyone loves coming here because it's close to home. For me ... it's that one racetrack that frustrates the hell out of me that I can't figure out."

Team owner Richard Childress was so convinced Harvick wouldn't win that he left pit road and went to his Turn 1 condominium to "beat the traffic" with 10 laps to go.

With a lap to go Childress was excited to see Earnhardt, the son of the driver who won six of his seven championships driving for Richard Childress Racing, headed for the checkered.

"When I saw him come down the backstretch I said, 'Dale's going to win this race,' " Childress said. "All of a sudden, when I heard our spotter start yelling, I was, 'Yeah! We're going to win it!'

"Yeah, we all want to see Dale Jr. win, but not at our expense. He's going to win his races. I'll be the first one there to congratulate him because I am an Earnhardt fan at heart. But I pull for my guys."

Don't feel sorry for Earnhardt. He was as happy with his effort, maybe happier, than the winner nicknamed "Happy" was with his.

"To be honest, I know there is disappointment about coming so close," Earnhardt said after maintaining his spot at fourth in points. "But our fans should be real happy with how we're performing. We've definitely improved things. We want to keep getting better and better."

There were no regrets, and there shouldn't be. The only disappointment would have been hard Earnhardt hadn't gone for the win, had he settled for a top-10 or top-15 run.

Harvick shouldn't feel bad, either, although he repeatedly said he was.

"I feel so stinking bad for him," Harvick said sincerely. "I know how bad he wants it. It'll happen. If they keep running like that it'll happen."

It almost did on this night that saw driver after driver take control at different stages. Earnhardt almost upstaged the Indianapolis 500, which no other driver in NASCAR could have done on this Memorial Day weekend.

"We had to try it," Earnhardt said. "Think about it, man, winning the 600. That would be awesome. I think I had to try ... had to try."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

ALSO SEE