CONCORD, N.C. – Will the mystery winner of Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 enter and sign in please?
Hint: It’s the guy who does back flips every time he takes the checkered flag.
But for the first 370 of 400 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway, no one would have picked Carl Edwards or his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as the likely winner of the season’s 12th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin had spent the lion’s share of time at the head of the field, but none of that mattered when Edwards got 62 laps out of his last tank of fuel and took the checkered flag 4.785 seconds ahead of Greg Biffle, who also was on a fuel-saving strategy.
In fact, the top four finishers all stretched their gas mileage after pit stops under caution on Lap 337. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran third, followed by polesitter Matt Kenseth and Truex, who led a race-high 131 laps.
Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Hamlin (53 laps led), Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch (118 laps led) completed the top 10. Kyle Busch came home 11th in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race of the season, after missing the first 11 races of the season because of injuries sustained Feb. 21 at Daytona.
The victory was Edwards first of the season, his first for Joe Gibbs Racing, his first at Charlotte and the 24th of his career.
"It’s so cool to get this win—we’ve had such bad luck," said Edwards, who joined Joe Gibbs Racing as the organization’s fourth Sprint Cup driver after the 2014 season. "And we were the slowest of the (JGR cars) tonight, but we had (crew chief) Darian (Grubb) on the box. He made the right call, he put us in a position to win, and it worked. …
"This is truly a gift. I took advantage of it to win, and we’ll get better."
In all likelihood, the victory will propel Edwards into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. It was also Toyota’s 300th national series victory in the manufacturer’s 300th Sprint Cup start.
But after the very early stages of the race, Edwards wasn’t a factor until fuel strategy came into play in the closing laps.
Soon after Jimmie Johnson spun off Turn 4 on Lap 90 to cause the second caution of the afternoon, the race evolved into a two-car contest between the Chevrolets of Kurt Busch and Truex.
Within two laps of a restart on Lap 95, Busch drove from ninth to the lead, passing Joey Logano for the top spot on lap 97. From that point, Busch and Truex swapped stints at the head of the field, and by the time Johnson spun off Turn 4 and smacked the inside wall on Lap 273 to bring out the caution flag for the fifth time, Busch had racked up 118 laps led and Truex 59.
But another quick yellow flag on Lap 282 for Ryan Blaney’s blown engine created the opportunity for divergent strategies and scrambled the running order. Truex was one of nine drivers who stayed out under the caution, but both Harvick and Kurt Busch came to pit road for fresh rubber and restarted 10th and 11th, respectively, on lap 292.
Gradually, methodically, Harvick and Kurt Busch drove back toward the front, but the contrarian strategies introduced another major player into the mix. Denny Hamlin surged to the front of the field and led 53 laps before pitting with a loose wheel on Lap 363 and giving up the lead.
That put Truex back in front, with Harvick chasing, and both drivers needing one more pit stop to get to the end of the race.
Edwards, Biffle, Earnhardt and Kenseth, on the other hand, stopped with 62 laps left, and the decision to come to pit road and gamble on fuel proved decisive—and stole a victory from Truex’s dominant car.
Biffle put pressure on Edwards in the closing laps, until he momentarily lost fuel pressure with two circuits left.
"Running where we were running, it gave us the opportunity to try and stretch the fuel window and make it," Biffle said. "I was putting a lot of pressure on Carl there. I started going with about 10 laps to go. The crew chief (Matt Puccia) told me ‘Save all you can, just stay in front of the 88 (Earnhardt),’ and I made a decision that I was going to try and beat Carl. I got pretty close to him there, and then with two to go, the fuel light came on that the fuel pressure was low, and so I came around and had to start pushing the clutch in and shutting it off and coasting and try and preserve what fuel I had to make it back.
"So excited to see the checkered flag. I wasn’t sure I was going to stretch two laps of gas out of it. But it was probably on the straightaway it sucked some air and started flashing the fuel pressure. I was able to run it around the corners and didn’t have any more issues, but stayed in front of the 88, finished second, big boost for the team, but probably a bigger boost for the team was how we ran tonight on the race track."
If Biffle had mixed feelings about finishing second, Truex was disconsolate.
"Hell, I didn’t even know guys could make it on gas," Truex said. I didn’t know what was going on. Just can’t catch a break there. I’m proud of the guys for an awesome race car. All my guys in Denver (where Furniture Row Racing is based) are putting a great car together. I don’t know what to do about that.
"We had a great car. Had a chance at it and it stinks to come up short like that on fuel mileage. I’ve never once in my whole career gained positions on a fuel mileage deal. I don’t know what I have to do to catch a break on them deals. It is what it is. Just proud of my guys for what they brought—we will get one."
Note: Late in the race, Hamlin reported feeling ill in his car and complained of a severe headache. He was taken to the infield care center after the race, and team owner Joe Gibbs said his driver was dehydrated, was given an IV and was feeling better after the treatment.