Gas gamble: Carl Edwards captures fuel-mileage win in Coca-Cola 600
Carl Edwards and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team gambled and won Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, stretching their final tank of fuel an incredible 62 laps to score an improbable victory.
Edwards, who last pitted with five other drivers on Lap 338 of 400, crossed the finish line ahead of Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
Each of the top four finishers was on the same strategy as Edwards, stretching their final tank of fuel 62 laps after last pitting on Lap 338, while most of the other frontrunners were forced to come to pit road for a late splash under green.
Edwards, who had been winless and struggled in 11 starts since joining JGR at the beginning of the 2015 season, led the final 21 laps and locked up a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The race winner praised crew chief Darian Grubb, who called the decision to try to stretch their fuel "a no-brainer."
"That’s what made the race for us," Edwards said in Victory Lane. "That’s what he does — he takes a mediocre day like that and he puts us in a good position."
Earnhardt Jr. was disappointed not to come out on top among those who managed to stretch their final tank.
"I was just hoping the guys in front of me would run too hard and run out of gas," he said. "We just had to try to go for a win there. We didn’t have fast enough of a car to beat the 41 (Kurt Busch) or the 78 (Truex). We just had to do something different. I like to gamble."
Starting third, Edwards inched ahead of teammate and polesitter Kenseth to lead the opening two laps before Kenseth took over the top spot for laps 3-27.
A total of nine drivers exchanged the lead over the first 300 laps — the race’s three-quarter mark — with Kurt Busch holding the top spot for a race-high 118 laps and Truex pacing the field for 86 circuits.
While Edwards celebrated a long overdue win, others in contention for strong finishes had their nights come to extremely disappointing ends.
Chief among those unhappy at the conclusion of Sunday night’s 400-lap, 600-mile marathon was defending and four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner Jimmie Johnson, who spun twice on the exit to Turn 4.
Johnson, who continued on with no damage from the first spin and even battled his way into the top five, wasn’t so fortunate the second time around — when his No. 48 Chevrolet slammed head-on into the inside pit wall.
While the six-time series champion was unhurt, the same couldn’t be said for his car, which he subsequently drove to the garage but later returned to the race with following extensive repairs.
"We just had a really loose race car," Johnson said. "We came in with an aggressive mindset to bring an aggressive setup in the car, drive aggressively and take chances. We just don’t have anything to lose. Unfortunately we didn’t get long enough into the race for the aggressive setup to come into play. Another 30 or 40 laps we would have had the car right where we wanted it. I just didn’t make it there."
Johnson, who is already locked in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by virtue of his three wins, was scored with a 40th-place finish but didn’t regret going for broke on the strategy.
"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," he said. "We did, and I hit the fence."
Joining Johnson for an extended stay in the garage was part-time Sprint Cup driver Ryan Blaney, whose No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford was running 14th and on the lead lap before slapping the outside wall and going up in a plume of smoke on Lap 282.
Blaney was credited with a 42nd-place finish and a DNF.
"To almost be there and have that issue is just unfortunate," Blaney said. "I hate it for these guys. They work so hard and they gave me a good piece and we were getting it better all night. I would have really liked to see where we ended up."
Edwards felt fortunate to end up in Victory Lane, a place he hadn’t been since leaving Ford and Roush Fenway Racing — the organization where he spent his entire career until beginning a new chapter this season in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
"I’m not happy with how we’ve performed and the results we’ve had," said Edwards, who prior to Sunday had recorded just one top-10 finish and no top fives in his short tenure with JGR. "I feel like this is a gift. As much as I’ve been frustrated, this is truly a gift, and I’m going to take advantage of it and enjoy it, and we’ll get better."
VIDEO: Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks about earning another top-three finish in Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte