Running fourth with 50 laps to go, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not want to pit in Saturday's NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway. But short on fuel and in danger of losing his grip on a guaranteed spot in the Chase, he played it safe and hit road.
Earnhardt would rally back to finish 10th in the Irwin Tools Night Race and increased the gap between himself and 11th-place Brad Keselowski to 33-points with just two regular season races remaining.
"If it was earlier in the season we would have gambled and went for it," Earnhardt said. "But under the circumstances we didn't have the freedom to do that, and as much as I hate to say what could have happened maybe we could have finished in the top five or top three even.
Crew chief Steve Letarte estimated that Earnhardt was four to five laps from making it on fuel, and as tempting as it was to gamble and go for the win, a look at the big picture necessitated that the No. 88 car pit.
It proved to be the sage decision as Clint Bowyer, who was ahead of Earnhardt when he decided to pit, attempted to stretch his fuel. But on the white flag lap Bowyer's fuel tank ran dry and he fell from third to 14th.
"The No. 15 (Bowyer) ran out and he was even saving as much as we were," Earnhardt said. "Just a risk we couldn't take tonight. But gave up about maybe five points there and hopefully just making sure we got the fuel to finish the race and getting a 10th-place finish will pay off for us here in the next couple of weeks."
The consecutive poor finishes Earnhardt had posted entering Bristol factored into the decision to be conservative and pit.
Two weeks ago at Watkins Glen while running in the top 15 he was collected in a multi-car crash with a handful of laps remaining. And last week at Michigan, he was sixth when a tire failure sent him into the wall. The finishes of 30th and 36th, respectively, left Earnhardt just 20 points above the Chase cutoff.
"I really don't know how much we gained on everybody tonight, but we definitely needed to build on that cushion," Earnhardt said. "Those 20 points really had me pretty nervous.
"Hopefully if we can put a good one together next week (at Atlanta) -- something similar or better than this -- we will definitely go to Richmond a lot more comfortable."