Bowyer wins fuel duel at Charlotte
Chase for the Sprint Cup enters final five races
Clint Bowyer won a tense fuel-strategy battle with the top three drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings and beat them to the finish of Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In the process, Bowyer closed in on the top three -- Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- in the run for the championship as the Chase moves into the final five races.
Bowyer outran Hamlin by .41 second to score his third win of the year. Bowyer ran out of fuel after the finish and wasn't able to perform one of the blistering burnouts he has become known for.
Johnson finished third, and Keselowski, who ran out of fuel in the final 100 miles, was 11th, a lap down.
Keselowski retained the points lead, but his margin over Johnson was cut in half, from 14 to seven. Hamlin stayed in third and trails Keselowski by only 15.
Bowyer jumped a position into fourth and is 28 behind Keselowski.
"That was like playing blackjack," Keselowski said of the fuel-strategy game. "Sometimes you're going to get a good deal, but you're not going to win them all."
Hamlin gave up a shot at passing Bowyer for the win to retain the fuel-saving strategy. "It goes against everything we've ever learned as race car drivers," he said. "I knew what I had to do."
Meanwhile, Bowyer and his team, led by crew chief Brian Pattie, had figured their fuel mileage to near-perfection, and Bowyer pitted on sequence to finish the race with his last drops of gas.
"The run before the last one really won the race," Bowyer said. "If we had pitted one lap earlier, we would have run out of gas (at the end of the race)."
Completing the top five were Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch. In the second five were Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.
Biffle's finish boosted him three spots in the Chase to sixth, but he is 43 points behind Keselowski entering the Kansas race.
Jeff Gordon finished 18th and fell three positions to ninth, 50 points out.
Although 28 points is a heavy total to make up over five races, Bowyer said he'll roll into his home track -- Kansas Speedway -- next week with the idea of making it work.
"We're a hell of a lot better than we were leaving Talladega and being back in victory lane and having new life and new hope going into Kansas," he said. "There's a lot of racing left. Nobody knows what to expect there. It's a repave. You don't know if somebody is going to stub their toe."
Bowyer was 40 points down entering the race after finishing 23rd at Talladega last week because of the massive last-lap crash.
"After Talladega, we had to be able to get back in the game," Pattie said. "To win this race really set the standard for getting on down the road and putting that behind us."
He said the team will continue its search for victories over the Chase's final five events.
"We're going for trophies," he said. "That's the only way you're going to beat the 2 (Keselowski), the 48 (Johnson) and the 11 (Hamlin). We had to do something special to get back into it."
Outside the Chase group, Regan Smith had a tough night in his spotlighted run as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the race because of health issues. Smith started the race 26th and advanced to 10th before being sidelined with engine trouble 61 laps in. He finished 38th but will get another shot in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 next week at Kansas.
By sitting out Saturday's race, Earnhardt fell from 11th to 12th in Chase points and probably will finish the year in that spot.
AJ Allmendinger, who made his return to NASCAR Saturday night after being suspended this summer for failing a drug test, finished 24th in the Phoenix Racing Chevrolet.
Kurt Busch, driving the Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet for the first time, finished 21st.
EARNHARDT'S ABSENCE LOOMS OVER RACE
Taking attention from a hotly contested Chase for the Sprint Cup in the middle of NASCAR's version of the playoffs isn't easy. But you have a shot if your name happens to be Earnhardt.
As drivers and teams prepared for Saturday night's Bank of America 500, the fifth race in the Chase, the buzz around Charlotte Motor Speedway continued to focus on the Thursday announcement that Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, would miss the race -- and the next one at Kansas Speedway.
Earnhardt suffered a concussion in the massive last-lap crash near the end of last week's race at Talladega Superspeedway. Contact in that accident made Earnhardt realize he had not fully recovered from the effects of a vicious crash in testing at Kansas Speedway in August, and the double whammy sent him in search of medical attention.
As a result, Earnhardt is following doctor's orders and will sit for two weeks, ending what already was a fruitless run for the Sprint Cup championship.
Saturday night's race marked the first time since 1979 that a member of the Earnhardt family had not been part of a Cup starting field and the first time since 1961 that a Cup grid rolled off under green without a native North Carolinian.
"For whatever the reason, the wreck at Kansas was just really severe and really surprised me how tough it was to get past that," Earnhardt said. "I thought I was in the clear, but just that little accident at Talladega, I started having headaches and stuff immediately after the wreck, and then into the next day and into Tuesday, and I thought, 'Man, this is pretty soon after the other accident in Kansas. I should probably take this really seriously and seek some professional opinions on this.' "
DRIVER CAROUSEL SPINS
Earnhardt's absence Saturday started a merry-go-round of driver changes that opens up interesting scenarios for the next few weeks.
Upon learning of Earnhardt's need to rest and recover, team owner Rick Hendrick called on Smith, who was scheduled to begin driving this week for Phoenix Racing. There was a vacancy at Phoenix because of the departure of Kurt Busch, who is moving into Smith's old ride at Furniture Row Racing.
When Smith accepted Hendrick's invitation to drive Earnhardt's regular ride -- that decision took him about a millisecond -- it re-opened the cockpit at Phoenix, and it was filled Saturday by the return to NASCAR racing of AJ Allmendinger.
In any other week, Allmendinger's reappearance would be the major story. He was suspended by NASCAR in July after failing a drug test and was reinstated to competition recently after completing NASCAR-mandated rehabilitation. Saturday night marked his first race since the suspension.