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NASCAR at Charlotte 2012: Fuel-mileage throws twist into Bank of America 500

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25 Total Updates since October 11, 2012
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Keselowski suffers Chase setback at Charlotte

Brad Keselowski lost his chance at a top-five finish when he ran out of fuel late in Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and then had to make another pit stop because of the timing.

After the race, though, the driver didn't seem to think his world was crumbling. He didn't throw anything or storm away. He didn't curse his crew chief for a miscalculation or take a shot at his equipment.

Instead, Keselowski smiled. It was all good, he indicated. These things happen.

"It's like blackjack," he said. "You're not going to win every hand. When you have a bad deal, you try to not have too many chips on the table."

That's exactly what went down for the No. 2 team in the Bank of America 500. Though Keselowski was going for the win and failed, his result could have been a lot worse than finishing 11th.

The Penske Racing driver still left the race seven points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 15 points up on Denny Hamlin at the halfway point of the Chase. Not exactly a disaster, but the circumstances still had to be disappointing.

"When we knew we had as fast of a race car as we did, it's tough to take," crew chief Paul Wolfe said. "But at the end of the day, we're still the point leader leaving Charlotte, which says a lot about what we've been able to do this far into the Chase. Just because we have an off-night and finish 11th doesn't mean that we're out of it or we need to hit the panic button. We're still the point leader and we'll continue to work hard."

Wolfe and Keselowski could have played a more conservative strategy and not risked the driver running out of fuel. The tank ran dry when Keselowski was trying to get into the edge of a fuel window that would allow for just one more pit stop, not two.

So why try it? Because, Keselowski said, his team was "not going to put the prevent defense out there."

"We're going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time," he said. "Sometimes you're going to miss and they're going to get a big payoff. We have hit them a lot – that's why we're in the points lead – and we're going to keep after it."

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For once, fuel mileage works to Hamlin's advantage

Denny Hamlin's track record in fuel mileage races is well-documented – and it's not good.

Numerous times, fuel mileage has prevented the driver from winning races and even helped cost him a championship in 2010.

In Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, however, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb finally played the fuel-mileage game to their advantage – and the result was a hard-fought runner-up finish.

"It was good to have a fuel-mileage race somewhat go our way," Hamlin said. "Darian made the gutsy call to bring us in and lose all of our track position in the middle of the race, which I was kind of frustrated with. But obviously, he knew what he was doing and we saved the fuel that we needed, and we slowed down just enough to finish second."

The finish in the Bank of America 500 was a far different than it was two weeks ago at Dover, when Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch were forced to pit with 10 laps to go and forfeit their top running positions.

Afterward, Busch loudly called out Toyota for what he perceived to be its inability to get better fuel mileage, while Hamlin tried his best to swallow yet another race where the numbers on the calculator worked against him.

So what was the difference Saturday night compared to Dover that allowed Hamlin to make it to the end without stopping? The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said it had nothing to do with a change by his team in philosophy or pre-race strategy; it was simply how the cautions fell.

Regardless of what prompted the change, Hamlin leaves Charlotte in excellent shape as he pursues his first Sprint Cup Series championship. The second-place finish moved him to within 15 points of Brad Keselowski for the overall lead. Even better, Hamlin heads to next week's race at Kansas having won there in April.

But in spite of what should be considered a successful night, Hamlin couldn't help but lament a race that he seemed poised to win. After all, in the closing laps, he was quicker than leader Clint Bowyer. However, because he was in fuel conservation mode, Hamlin was unable to race as hard as he wanted to and allowed Bowyer to pad a lead that he was able to maintain all the way to the finish.

All this left Hamlin wondering: What if?

"It's tough because I'm sitting there thinking, I can go by this 15 (Bowyer) or catch him just about any time I want, but Darian is screaming at me to back it off," he said. " ... It'll be interesting to see how much fuel we had left and whether we could have cut the reins a little bit sooner and passed the 15. We just needed one more lap."

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Allmendinger regains confidence in NASCAR return

After AJ Allmendinger completed his first race since being reinstated from a substance abuse suspension, the driver seemed both rejuvenated and anxious to know when he'd be racing again.

Allmendinger finished 24th for Phoenix Racing in Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway – not a bad result considering his three-month layoff.

"I questioned whether or not I could even do 500 miles at Charlotte, but then we were competitive up until we lost that tire, and we were looking at top-17 finish, beating some really good race teams," he said. "I just want to thank James Finch for this opportunity and we’ll see if we’re racing at Kansas next weekend.”

Allmendinger hovered around 20th all night and could have finished there if not for a penalty during his final pit stop. A crewman let a tire get away during the stop and Allmendinger was forced to serve a drive-through penalty.

“We fought a tight race car all night,” Allmendinger said. “We didn’t even get the car right until that last practice session. But the guys fought really hard all weekend and we were in position to get a top-17 before that tire rolled away. But other than that, it felt really good to be back out there.

“That’s all I know how to do.”

The spot opened up for Allmendinger to make his return when Regan Smith was hired away to relieve Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports. Allmendinger’s last start was at Kentucky on June 30. He was suspended just hours before the following week’s race at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kurt Busch calls his day an 'L' on scale of A-Z

After making his first start with Furniture Row Racing, Kurt Busch used an alphabetic scale to rate the progress with his new team.

“It was a good day in regards to note-taking and building depth as far as our chemistry and things,” Busch said. “I provided a lot of good information and I think we can use it to get faster, quicker. On a scale of A-Z, we got to about L tonight. We should be good at Kansas with one extra day to test and practice."

Busch finished 21st in Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and said the team used former driver Regan Smith's setup to get a baseline for the feel Busch prefers. The 2004 Cup champion ran inside the top 20 for most of the night and said he sees a lot of potential in his new equipment.

"Our day was uneventful,” he said. “It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. We spent the weekend sorting out different packages. Just uneventful. But let me tell you, they dropped the green flag and we went right to the front…

“We finished about where we started, but the front tires just generated too much heat. We were in the lucky dog position all day and now we start the process of comparing myself to where Regan (Smith) was earlier this year."

Immediately following the race, Kurt Busch left his car and went directly to his hauler. He didn’t come out until roughly 30 minutes later following a lengthy debriefing with new crew chief Todd Berrier and key members of the No. 78 team.

There was much to talk about and discuss after the first race of a new relationship.

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Results: Clint Bowyer wins fuel-mileage race

Saving fuel over the final 56 laps of the closing green-flag run, Clint Bowyer snookered his Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup rivals by winning Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer, who won for the third time this season, beat Denny Hamlin to the finish line by .417 seconds. Jimmie Johnson, who like Hamlin and Bowyer was saving fuel over the final run, came home third. The top three finishers trimmed a significant portion off Brad Keselowski's series lead.

Keselowski ran out of fuel before his final pit stop and finished 11th. Keselowski leads Johnson by seven points and third-place Hamlin by 15 at the midpoint of the Chase. Bowyer climbed to fourth in the standings, 28 points back.

Greg Biffle ran fourth, Kyle Busch fifth and Mark Martin sixth, as only six cars finished on the lead lap

Keselowski gained track position by pitting under the first caution on Lap 12 and then staying out when the rest of the lead-lap cars came to pit road under the third yellow on Lap 37. From Lap 42 through Lap 166, the race ran caution-free, and when NASCAR threw the fourth yellow for debris in Turn 1 on Lap 166, the caution restored all the lead-lap cars to the same tire cycle.

All except Johnson, that is. Curiously, Johnson was the only driver to take two tires (right sides) as opposed to four during pit stops on Lap 168. The No. 48 Chevrolet restarted the race in the lead on lap 173, but Johnson quickly lost six spots to cars with fresher rubber.

With a three-wide move to the outside on the restart, Biffle took the top spot, but his stint at the point was short-lived. Keselowski slipped past Biffle on lap 180, pulling Hamlin with him, and began logging laps at the front of the field.

A debris caution interrupted the proceedings on lap 223, but it didn't deter Keselowski, who led the field to a restart on Lap 228 and began to pull away from Kyle Busch. Johnson and Hamlin came to pit road to top off their fuel cells under the caution - whereas Keselowski did not.

Ultimately, that cost the driver of the No. 2 Dodge, who ran one lap too many before his next stop and ran out of fuel before getting back to pit road on Lap 276. Keselowski's car stalled in the pit box, and by the time he was back up to racing speed, he was 13th in the running order.

Johnson and Hamlin pitted on Laps 279 and 280, respectively, and were confident they could make it to the checkered flag without stopping again. They did - but so did Bowyer.

Here are the full results from Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte:

  1. Clint Bowyer
  2. Denny Hamlin
  3. Jimmie Johnson
  4. Greg Biffle
  5. Kyle Busch
  6. Mark Martin
  7. Carl Edwards
  8. Kasey Kahne
  9. Joey Logano
  10. Martin Truex Jr.
  11. Brad Keselowski
  12. Aric Almirola
  13. Tony Stewart
  14. Matt Kenseth
  15. Sam Hornish Jr.
  16. Kevin Harvick
  17. Jamie McMurray
  18. Jeff Gordon
  19. Juan Pablo Montoya
  20. Ryan Newman
  21. Kurt Busch
  22. Trevor Bayne
  23. David Gilliland
  24. AJ Allmendinger
  25. Travis Kvapil
  26. Landon Cassill
  27. Paul Menard
  28. Jeff Burton
  29. Casey Mears
  30. David Reutimann
  31. Michael McDowell
  32. Bobby Labonte
  33. Marcos Ambrose
  34. David Ragan
  35. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  36. Timmy Hill
  37. David Stremme
  38. Regan Smith
  39. Mike Bliss
  40. Scott Speed
  41. Reed Sorenson
  42. JJ Yeley
  43. Dave Blaney
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Smith's engine blows while subbing for Dale Jr.

Regan Smith's debut with Hendrick Motorsports lasted all of 65 laps, suffering an engine failure in his first race substituting for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Smith had worked his way into the top 10 following a 26th-place starting position when smoke began pouring from the back of the No. 88 Chevrolet on lap 62. Smith circled the track a few more laps before ultimately taking it to the garage.

Upon arriving, teams from both the No. 88 and Stewart-Haas Racing No. 39 began working on the car, evoking memories of Ryan Newman's blown engine during Friday practice.

Smith said the engine provided no warning that it was set to expire and that it went out, "just like that."

"We're still looking at everything," Smith said of his expired engine. "I think the important part is that we had a really fast race car. We had a good adjustment there, went a little too far with it and got a little too free. We needed one more stop and I think we would have had it dialed in and just chasing the weather from that point on."

Smith will stay with the team through at least Kansas next week, as doctors recommended that Earnhardt Jr. sit out at least two races as a result of suffering his second consecutive concussion.

"This is the classiest organization I've ever been with," Smith said. "That's not an indication of any other team I've worked with, but just the class these guys have shown me. I'm looking forward to next week. We got three days to test when we get to Kansas and we will see if we can get the AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet up front. I feel confident that we will have the same speed we had here."

It was the first engine failure of the season for the No. 88 team. Smith finished 38th.

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Preview: What to watch for tonight at Charlotte

Here are some storylines to follow, notes and drivers to watch for during tonight's running of the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:

Storylines

Keselowski leads, while Johnson and Hamlin remain in close pursuit

After escaping virtually unscathed from the craziness that was Talladega, Brad Keselowski was able to increase his point lead to 14 over Jimmie Johnson and 23 over Denny Hamlin. But as Keselowski himself has repeatedly said, there is no reason to start celebrating with six races left on the schedule. And the Penske Racing driver is correct, because while 14 points does offer him a bit of a buffer, it's a lead that can quickly evaporate.

Tonight, the onus falls on Johnson and Hamlin to go out and outperform Keselowski. If Johnson and Hamlin can do this, it will put the pressure squarely on the man they are chasing – a driver who has yet to experience the rigors of being in a championship fight and all that goes with being the hunted and not the hunter.

Another thing to keep an eye on is whether Hamlin and his No. 11 team start rethinking their strategy. Twenty two points is by no means insurmountable – a year ago at this time Tony Stewart entered this race 19 markers out of first. But considering the position in which Hamlin now finds himself, it means he won't be afforded another mulligan if he wants to win his first series title and likely needs to finish in the top 10 from here on out.

Can Jeff Gordon continue his charge?

After opening the Chase in the worst way possible, Jeff Gordon has finished second, second and third the last three weeks and has done everything he can to try and climb back up the standings. But despite the valiant effort, he is still staring at a 42-point deficit and can only do so much in pursuit of his fifth series title. This means not only does Gordon have to continue finishing near the front every week; he also is going to need some help – and lots of it.

Regan Smith steps into the spotlight

Due to two concussions he's suffered over the previous six weeks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not be in the field when the green flag flies this evening – the first race he's ever missed since becoming a full-time driver.

Earnhardt Jr.'s misfortune is another driver's opening. In this case, it will be Regan Smith who will occupy the seat of the No. 88 both tonight and next week at Kansas. For Smith, this is by far the best opportunity he's ever had at the Cup-level and, facing an uncertain future, this will allow him to showcase his talent and that he is deserving of full-time ride in 2013.

Can Smith will replicate what Jamie McMurray did in this race 10 years ago? It was then if you recall, McMurray in just his second start both in Cup and as the fill-in driver for the injured Sterling Marlin, impressively held off Bobby Labonte to earn the out of nowhere win.

Is there another storybook ending waiting to be written? And can Smith write it?

Worth Noting

• Six drivers in tonight's field – Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and David Reutimann – all earned their first Cup victories at Charlotte.

• Tonight will be the first race since Sept. 3, 1979 at Darlington that a driver with the last name Earnhardt won't be in the starting lineup.

• Thirty of the previous 34 Chase races have been won by drivers in the Chase.

Favorites

1. Denny Hamlin

With victories at Kansas and Atlanta, a second at Charlotte in the spring and a third at Kentucky, the 1.5-mile ovals in 2012 have been good to Denny Hamlin. And as has been the case throughout the year on the intermediate tracks, the No. 11 Toyota appears to be strong this weekend, having posted the best 10 consecutive lap average in final practice.

2. Jimmie Johnson

From 2003-05, Jimmie Johnson won five times at Charlotte in a six-race span. However, since then he's been to Victory Lane just once and has more finishes (seven) outside the top 10 than he does inside (six). But throughout practice the 48 car has been consistently one of the quickest, so just maybe Johnson is ready to again reign supreme on the track he once ruled.

3. Kasey Kahne

In May, Kasey Kahne led the final 44 laps and rolled by over four seconds to what was his first win of the season. And although he has a different chassis underneath him, Kahne was among the fastest in practice and looks more than capable of completing the Charlotte sweep – something he did in 2006.

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Fans back Earnhardt Jr.'s decision, express worry

Cadence Smith was unpacking her campground Thursday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway when she received a text from her daughter.

"You do know your driver is not racing this weekend, right?" the text said.

Surprised, Smith wrote back asking for more information. She hadn't heard any news regarding Dale Earnhardt Jr. since arriving from suburban Philadelphia and had no idea the driver would be missing the Charlotte race with a concussion.

When her daughter broke the news, Smith was disappointed but immediately felt the driver had done the right thing.

"I'm proud of him," she said. "It's not an easy thing to do, and it can't be easy for him personally. I want him to do what's right for him."

Each of the Earnhardt Jr. fans we spoke to on Saturday afternoon seemed to express a similar sentiment: While disappointed not to see their driver race, they knew it was right for him to sit out and recover from his head injury. And most said they'll still root for the No. 88 team and Regan Smith, although several had secondary drivers they also liked.

One consensus among the fans: There was never a thought about skipping the race.

Valerie Boyd, an Earnhardt Jr. fan since his Busch Series days, said friends started asking her immediately whether she still planned to drive from Indiana to see the race.

"There wasn't a doubt," she said. "I'll root for the 88 anyway. I love racing. I said, 'I'm still going to go.'"

Some fans felt an great sense of sadness – not for themselves, but for their driver. Cheryl Moseley, who recently moved to North Carolina from Iowa, said she's been an Earnhardt fan "forever" – and felt heartbroken over the driver's concussions.

"It's the same feeling I get when I see him lose a race or have a bad day," she said. "I feel sick for him. I just hope a lot of people don't run away from the sport, because that would make him feel even worse. He doesn't want to be the reason people don't come to the track."

Ann O'Donnell, who drove more than 900 miles from Massachusetts to watch Earnhardt Jr. race, said she was "bummed" but would rather see the driver get totally healthy before returning to competition.

"Two weeks is not enough," she said. "What if he comes back and something else happens again in three weeks? I'd just rather see him take the rest of the year off and get healthy."

In that sense, the uncertain timetable for the driver's return seemed to worry some fans. While Earnhardt Jr. could return in two weeks, there are no guarantees with head injuries – especially when someone has had multiple concussions in a short time.

"My bigger fear is that he'll hang it up early," said Smith, who recently suffered from a life-threatening illness. "I don't want my driver to go through the same thing I went through. It would be tough to see him quit, but he's 38 – he's got the rest of his life ahead of him."

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Race night: Start time, lineup, TV info and more

It's NASCAR race night at Charlotte Motor Speedway and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about tonight's race for you below.

What time does the race start tonight? An official from the Wounded Warrior Foundation will give the command for drivers to fire their engines at 7:41 p.m. Eastern time tonight. Following a few pace laps, the drivers will take the green flag at 7:50 p.m. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the actual race itself, turn on your TV set at 7:50 p.m. EDT.

Race name/distance: The Bank of America 500 is a 500-mile race around the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway, which consists of 334 laps. The Cup cars will run 200 miles longer than the Nationwide cars did on Friday night.

TV and radio: Tonight's race can be seen on ABC. After tonight, every Sprint Cup Series race for the rest of the season will be seen on ESPN. There is no live streaming of the race tonight, since the race is on network television. However, you can listen on the Performance Racing Network's Web site (just click the red link). You can also check PRN's site for a list of affiliate stations in your area.

Twitter: If you're planning to be away from your TV or radio and want updates tonight, you can follow me on Twitter @jeff_gluck. I'll be tweeting live race updates from the track.

National anthem: Christian music artists NewSong will sing the national anthem tonight. NewSong has had 20 No. 1 singles on Christian radio.

Tickets: Charlotte is not close to a sellout and there are plenty of tickets available for tonight's race if you're thinking of making a last-minute trip.

Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, predicts cool fall weather with race temperatures in the 50s for most of the event. It should be chilly, put pleasant.

Last time: Kasey Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 in May, his first win for Hendrick Motorsports. And one year ago in the Charlotte fall race, Matt Kenseth pulled away from Kyle Busch over the final 12 laps to easily win.

Starting lineup for Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Chase drivers in BOLD):

  1. Greg Biffle
  2. Mark Martin
  3. Ryan Newman
  4. Clint Bowyer
  5. Jimmie Johnson
  6. Martin Truex Jr.
  7. Matt Kenseth
  8. Kyle Busch
  9. Denny Hamlin
  10. Kasey Kahne
  11. Kevin Harvick
  12. Joey Logano
  13. Jeff Gordon
  14. Sam Hornish Jr.
  15. Bobby Labonte
  16. Trevor Bayne
  17. Aric Almirola
  18. Marcos Ambrose
  19. Carl Edwards
  20. Brad Keselowski
  21. Kurt Busch
  22. Juan Pablo Montoya
  23. Scott Speed
  24. Paul Menard
  25. David Ragan
  26. Regan Smith
  27. Casey Mears
  28. Mike Bliss
  29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  30. Jamie McMurray
  31. David Stremme
  32. Tony Stewart
  33. Michael McDowell
  34. David Reutimann
  35. JJ Yeley
  36. David Gilliland
  37. Landon Cassill
  38. AJ Allmendinger
  39. Jeff Burton
  40. Timmy Hill
  41. Travis Kvapil
  42. Dave Blaney
  43. Reed Sorenson
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Nationwide: Sadler extends championship lead

Elliott Sadler is closing in on his first NASCAR Nationwide Series championship. He finished third in Friday's Dollar General 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and extended his championship lead to 13 points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished seventh.

Sadler and his crew chief, Luke Lambert, essentially had to choose between a risky go-for-the-win strategy or a more conservative approach in the closing laps of the race. With everyone nearly 10 laps short on fuel, the decision to splash-and-go or take two tires and fuel were the most popular options.

Two tires would have provided more grip over the final 10 laps, but would have also increased the risk for a mistake on the pit stop. Ultimately the No. 2 team opted for fuel only, a decision that Sadler doesn't regret one bit.

"We played the safest possible pit strategy," Sadler said. "We would have considered (the tires) if we were chasing in the points. But we wanted to make the safe call; we didn't want a loose lugnut take us out of the running.

"At this point of the season you don't want to try to gain two points and lose 15."

Next up on the schedule is Kansas; a track that Sadler believes could act as one final wild card race for the two contenders with four races remaining. Kansas underwent a repave during the summer, a process that could drastically alter the way the track races when racing resumes next weekend.

"Kansas is a pothole for all of us because we don't know anything about tire or surface," Sadler said. "...That new surface at Kansas is going to shatter the right front and right rear tires and despite the upcoming tire test (Thursday), we still look at it as the biggest unknown with four races to go."

Sadler is having the most fun of his entire career right now.

This is the second consecutive year of Sadler's Nationwide Series comeback and he's been in the championship hunt both seasons. After struggling in the Sprint Cup Series prior to dropping down to Nationwide, Sadler is reminded why he loves racing in NASCAR.

"This is fun for me," Sadler said. "I have a great race team and a great car owner. Our teams all work really well together. It's so much fun to run competitively and race for championships. And even though we didn't win it last year, it was a lot of fun and that's what racing is all about – racing under pressure and knowing you had better not make a mistake.

"This is what you dream of as a kid, to have a kick-ass race car and to be able to compete for championships."

Stenhouse, though, didn't share Sadler's enjoyment of Friday night's race. His team decided to fix a damaged spoiler on a pit stop when he was running third – against the driver's wishes. With the extra time it took, Stenhouse fell further into the pack and was never able to make up ground.

"After that, it was tough to get our track position back and we finished seventh," he said. "That wasn't what we wanted, but we've got four weeks left.

"We're losing points, so that's not the way we need to be going."

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Joey Logano wins yet another Nationwide race

You can call him the dominator.

Joey Logano buried the field in the final run of Friday night's Dollar General 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and won his eighth Nationwide Series race of the season in 18 starts.

Logano beat Kevin Harvick to the finish line by 2.760 seconds to win for the first time at Charlotte and the 17th time in his career. Series leader Elliott Sadler ran third and extended his advantage to 13 points over Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who came home seventh.

Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin completed the top five.

Brad Keselowski took the lead from Joey Logano at the midpoint of the race and quickly pulled away to a lead of more than one second. Stenhouse got by Logano for the second spot on Lap 116 but couldn't make headway on the leader.

When Stenhouse's car began to fade slightly as the run progressed, Logano retook second, but a caution for debris on Lap 131 gave the lead-lap cars a chance to pit for tires and fuel and bunched the field for the restart.

Sadler gained two positions to second on the exchange of stops, but Stenhouse fell seven spots to 10th with an uncharacteristically slow pit stop marked by indecision as to whether to straighten the right side of the rear spoiler. Stenhouse had bent the spoiler during a slight brush with the outside wall.

It was Logano who led the field to a restart on Lap 137, but Harvick tracked him down and passed the No. 20 Toyota in traffic on Lap 155. On Lap 162, however, both Logano and Keselowski shot past Harvick into the top two spots, after the handling of Harvick's Chevrolet began to deteriorate.

After the Lap 137 restart, all drivers had to stop for fuel before the end of the race, which proved Keselowski's undoing. His crew failed to engage the gas can and did not get fuel in the car on a splash-and-go with 10 laps left. That set up Logano for the decisive win.

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'Dinger thrilled to get unexpected NASCAR return

AJ Allmendinger woke up at 8:30 a.m. Thursday morning, ready for a day of golf and a visit to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage to shake some hands and say hello.

First, though, he went to work out – and left his phone at home in the process. After all, he figured, why would anyone call him so early in the morning?

But upon returning, Allmendinger picked up his phone to see four missed calls from Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll.

He knew it was urgent, but there was just one problem: Allmendinger's condominium doesn't get very good reception.

"It was like, 'What? You want...today? What?'" he said with a laugh. "Is this a joke?"

Eventually, he got the message: Phoenix Racing wanted Allmendinger to get his butt to Charlotte Motor Speedway right away to drive its No. 51 car in place of Regan Smith, who was called to sub for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The race will mark Allmendinger's return to a race car for the first time in three months, since he was suspended for testing positive for an amphetamine. He completed NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program last month, but had yet to get a new job.

"It's like riding a bike – at 200 mph," Allmendinger said with another laugh. "It's tough. Charlotte is a fast race track, so it's a matter of getting used to it again."

Allmendinger was asked whether he would have thought he'd return so quickly when his suspension became indefinite in late July. But the driver said at that time, he wasn't thinking about driving at all.

"In late July, I was not worried about driving a Cup car; I was worried about fixing everything and getting where I needed to be as a person and what that entailed," he said. "So at that point, racing was the last thing I was worried about."

As for his goals for Saturday night's race? Allmendinger said he'd love to "come try to set the world on fire," but would settle for running all 500 miles and minimizing his mistakes.

After all, if this doesn't work out, Allmendinger doesn't know what's next. Asked what other irons he had in the fire, the driver laughed.

"You're looking at it!" he said. "This is my iron in the fire: Getting in a race car tomorrow. That's all I have right now."

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Friendly rivalry for Nationwide Series crown

NASCAR drivers Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are in a fierce battle for the Nationwide Series championship. The combatants are separated by a mere nine points with just five races remaining in the season.

And because Sadler and Stenhouse have swapped the points lead four times in 2012 and went head-to-head last year for the title, it's easy to think there would be a natural rivalry between the two. But that is simply not the case, as the challengers hold one another in high regard.

"We have a mutual respect for each team," Stenhouse said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Our teams talk to each other. Our crew chiefs talk to each other. Everybody talks and gets along."

Sadler, 37, feels much the same way toward the man 12 years his junior.

"We definitely built a friendship last year even though we were racing against each other," Sadler said as he sat alongside Stenhouse. "We thoroughly respect each other's race teams, each other's ability and each other on the race track. It's just, 'Let's see who the best man is and see who wins at the end.' There is nothing evil to it at all; it's just mutual respect."

Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide champion, is even quick to praise Sadler for helping him become a better driver.

"I learned a lot from Elliott with his success and time in this sport," he said. "I was able to learn how to race for a championship – a lot of give-and-take from him – and I think that paid off a lot last year and it's paid off a lot this year."

That doesn't mean, however, that there haven't been times when they didn't see eye-to-eye. But when those times did arise – such as last month at Richmond when the two made contact that resulted in Sadler hitting the wall – they've been able to work through their issues.

"I think with the relationship we have, we were able to talk through it," Sadler said. "We might have been standing on different sides of the fence or had different views, but we were able to talk through it and move on from there."

Stenhouse echoed Sadler's comments and said the two "get along great" with the understanding that when the green flag falls, both are going to race each hard but respectfully.

"It's been a lot of fun racing Elliott," Stenhouse said. "He's a guy that I would hang out with off the racetrack. It's been a good two years."

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Lineup: Greg Biffle wins pole with track record

Greg Biffle said he's been down in the dumps lately with a disappointing start to the Chase.

A pole position for Saturday night's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway might lift his spirits a bit.

Biffle will lead the starting lineup for the Bank of America 500 after a track-record lap of 193.708 mph edged similarly fast laps from Mark Martin (193.361 mph) and Ryan Newman (193.251).

"I was super excited after that lap," Biffle said. "I drove it off into Turn 1 further than I thought it was going to work, and the car hooked the bottom and stuck. When he told me the lap time...I knew at that point it was a track record. I was pretty excited about it.

"That was a perfect lap. I hit all my marks just right on the button."

Chase drivers Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth will start fourth through seventh, followed by Kyle Busch and three more playoff drivers – Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick.

Other Chasers included Jeff Gordon (13th), Brad Keselowski (20th) and Tony Stewart (32nd).

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the race after suffering from the effects of his second concussion in six weeks.

Joe Nemechek, Josh Wise, Scott Riggs and Cole Whitt failed to qualify for the event.

Here is the starting lineup for Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Chase drivers in BOLD):

  1. Greg Biffle
  2. Mark Martin
  3. Ryan Newman
  4. Clint Bowyer
  5. Jimmie Johnson
  6. Martin Truex Jr.
  7. Matt Kenseth
  8. Kyle Busch
  9. Denny Hamlin
  10. Kasey Kahne
  11. Kevin Harvick
  12. Joey Logano
  13. Jeff Gordon
  14. Sam Hornish Jr.
  15. Bobby Labonte
  16. Trevor Bayne
  17. Aric Almirola
  18. Marcos Ambrose
  19. Carl Edwards
  20. Brad Keselowski
  21. Kurt Busch
  22. Juan Pablo Montoya
  23. Scott Speed
  24. Paul Menard
  25. David Ragan
  26. Regan Smith
  27. Casey Mears
  28. Mike Bliss
  29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  30. Jamie McMurray
  31. David Stremme
  32. Tony Stewart
  33. Michael McDowell
  34. David Reutimann
  35. JJ Yeley
  36. David Gilliland
  37. Landon Cassill
  38. AJ Allmendinger
  39. Jeff Burton
  40. Timmy Hill
  41. Travis Kvapil
  42. Dave Blaney
  43. Reed Sorenson
DNQ: Joe Nemechek, Josh Wise, Scott Riggs, Cole Whitt.
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Kurt Busch unsurprised by lack of NASCAR penalty

Kurt Busch stepped out of Furniture Row Racing's hauler and declared Thursday was a new day.

"For us, 2013 starts today," Busch said at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first at-track appearance with his new No. 78 team.

Busch said he would take the next six weeks to concentrate on the basics: Learning the names of his new crewmen and getting familiar with how the team works. He's interested, too, to see what it's like being teammates with Richard Childress Racing drivers Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton (RCR and Furniture Row have a close technical alliance).

The driver said he'll use information gathered from both Penske Racing and Phoenix Racing (plus Hendrick Motorsports, by association) to help get his new team off on the right foot.

"What I have in my mind and what I've done over the last 18 months, I need to translate that to them," he said.

Of course, there was some speculation Busch wouldn't debut for Furniture Row this weekend after he was parked at Talladega for driving away from a safety worker. NASCAR, though, decided not to penalize him further.

Busch said he wasn't surprised NASCAR elected not to issue a fine or suspension.

"We were all on the same page afterwards," Busch said. "It's tough to penalize a guy that's got the heart and desire to get back in the race. Our day wasn't quite done, and it was my last day with the team. I was just trying to give it my all."

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Opportunity knocks for Regan Smith

At 7 a.m. Thursday morning, Regan Smith was making coffee and preparing to go work out at a local gym when he saw a text message from an unknown number on his phone.

"This is Steve Letarte," the text said. "Give me a call ASAP."

The 29-year-old didn't think much of the message until he got to the "ASAP" part. Smith called Letarte, the crew chief of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 team, and was informed he'd be driving the car this weekend at Charlotte in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Smith hopped in the shower, skipped the gym and went straight to Hendrick's shop in Concord, N.C., where he was fitted for a new seat in preparation to substitute for NASCAR's most popular driver, who is out for at least two weeks with a concussion.

It was a wild turn of events for a driver whose tenure in Furniture Row Racing's No. 78 car ended last week and who was set to debut in Phoenix Racing's No. 51 car this weekend.

"The past four weeks have been about as up and down as any four weeks in my life," Smith said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, wearing No. 88 Amp hat and green Amp T-shirt.

Smith made it clear his main concern was Earnhardt Jr.'s health and recovery, but said he was excited to have an opportunity to drive a Chase-caliber car.

"I just want to do these guys proud and run as good as we can this weekend with this car," Smith said. "They're the same goals this team has every weekend: We want to go out there and try win the pole and try to win the race and try to be the fastest car in every practice. That's not going to change these weekend."

Smith, who hasn't spoken to Earnhardt Jr. yet, said he didn't feel any more pressure than usual. There's always pressure no matter what car a driver races, he said.

That said, Smith is well aware he's under more of a spotlight than ever before in his career.

"I do know Dale's got a huge following – Junior Nation is a big group of people," he said. "I've seen the good side of them before and the bad side. I'm glad to be on the good side for a couple weeks."

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Brad Keselowski saw firsthand Dale Jr.'s accident

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked during a tire test at Kansas Speedway, current NASCAR points leader Brad Keselowski was there that day and saw firsthand just how hard of an accident it was.

"I had heard it in my car when we were sitting in the garage when it (Earnhardt Jr.'s wreck) happened," Keselowski said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I looked up and could see the marks and could see that he hit really, really hard and that he probably was not going to be okay."

And when Earnhardt Jr. was checked out and cleared by the medical staff that August afternoon, Keselowski was part of the contingent who gave him a lift back to the garage. The two even sat next to one another on the ride and according to Keselowski, "He looked fine to me" and "was impressed" that Earnhardt Jr. had apparently emerged unscathed from what was a hard lick.

But Earnhardt Jr. wasn't fine, as he had a concussion that neither himself, Keselowski, nor anyone else knew about at the time. So in spite of not feeling 100 percent right, Earnhardt Jr. continued to race, as NASCAR drivers too frequently do when injured.

As Keselowski went on to explain, asking a driver to step out of the car for any length of time is a tough proposition - even if it may be in their own best interests to take a week off.

"For any race car driver, not being in the car is your worst fear," he said. "It's a nightmare that you have. It's your worst fear not to be in the race. That's the competitive desire you have as a race car driver so missing the show is terrible. It's just terrible to watch and not be a part of."

If there is a driver who knows something about racing with a serious injury it would be Keselowski.

Last year in a testing accident at Road Atlanta, the Penske Racing wheelman suffered a broken ankle. But despite the limitations, Keselowski didn't miss a single race, and in fact, the very next week at Pocono he went out and won.

"It's a tough situation to race in this sport and be injured," Keselowski said. "You're always left wondering what the line is and I think we all have our own code for that. ... As a driver the temptation, for me, at least is to honor that code back by finding a way to persevere through adversity - and physical injury is certainly one of them.

"But you're left balancing that with the knowledge sometimes you can compete through an injury and perpetuate whatever damage there is or, even worse, risk those around you. There is certainly a fine line to walk and every injury is different. But I would say that every driver will encounter that at some point in their career and has to find their own path through it."

However, there is a big difference between competing with broken ankle compared to an injury to your brain - especially when racing at speeds that can top 200 mph and where one mistake can not only put yourself at risk but those around you.

And this is why Keselowski recognizes and respects Earnhardt Jr. being forthright about his symptoms, as him doing do so made him ineligible to race the next two weeks at Charlotte and Kansas.

"Respectfully to Dale, he chose to not put himself in a bad situation and I think that is very admirable," Keselowski said." "Because everyone knows the effects of cumulative concussions can have on your body and that's something he doesn't need to take a risk of.

"And I think we all respect that; especially because of Dale's passion for the sport and the caring of his competitors not to put them in a tough situation."

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Dale Jr. hid concussion for weeks before 'Dega

There's a code in NASCAR: Whatever the injury, no matter how painful, a driver will never get out of his car.

Auto racing is a tough-guy sport, where even the admission of an injury can be seen as weakness. Drivers will race with severe illnesses, torn knee ligaments, broken bones and, in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s case, concussions.

"In order for me to get out of a race car, I would probably have to be incapacitated," driver Regan Smith said earlier this year. "I would probably crash on the racetrack because of whatever was ailing me before I would get out of my car."

And that can be a problem – as it was for Earnhardt Jr.

When Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire during an August 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway, he hit the wall with an incredible 40 g impact. He knew right away something was wrong, but with the Chase just weeks away, Earnhardt Jr. told everyone he felt fine.

"You know your body and you know how your mind works, and I knew something was just not quite right," Earnhardt Jr. told reporters at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday. "But I decided to just try to push through and work through it. I'd had concussions before and knew exactly kind of what I was dealing with."

More: Were signs of Earnhardt Jr. concussion missed?

Emergency personnel at the track evaluated the driver in an ambulance and cleared him to fly home. That night, he flew to a Washington Redskins preseason game. For all anyone knew, Earnhardt Jr. was OK to race.

He wasn't, though. He hid his injury and said he was only "80 to 90 percent" by the time the Chase began two weeks later. Earnhardt Jr. was feeling completely back to normal by Talladega, but then the Big One happened on the final lap.

In that wreck, Earnhardt Jr. sustained a more minor 20 g hit – and it was only on the rear of his car. The impact spun him around rapidly, though, and he knew immediately he'd suffered a setback.

"The car spun around really quick and just sort of disoriented me, and I knew that I had sort of regressed," he said.

Reporters gathered at his car after the race could see Earnhardt Jr. was in pain, holding his head before conducting an interview. But he insisted he felt fine and privately hoped the symptoms would clear up in a couple days.

When his headaches persisted on Tuesday, though, he consulted neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty.

Earnhardt Jr. was cleared by a neurological exam, and an ensuing MRI checked out normal. But upon going through Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion history with the driver, Petty decided he could not clear the NASCAR's biggest star to race in the next two events (Charlotte and Kansas).

Petty will wait until Earnhardt Jr. is headache-free for four or five days, then give him a stress test to try and induce a headache. If the symptoms don't return, Earnhardt Jr. will get in the car for a test lap or two.

"If that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race," Petty said.

NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell said Earnhardt Jr. showed "guts" in admitting he wasn't feeling well. But the truth is, Earnhardt Jr. only came forward after he realized he wasn't fully healed from the first concussion.

Just two days after the tire test crash, Earnhardt Jr. was on track for practice and qualifying at Atlanta. He finished seventh in the race, by he wasn't all there by his own admission.

"When you have a concussion, the symptoms can be really mild, and then they'll typically go away after a couple days and you feel perfectly normal," he said. "But then when you get in a car and you go around the track at a high rate of speed, you start to understand that some things just aren't quite where they need to be and some reactions just aren't as sharp.

"You really can't get a measurement of that until you're in the car. There's just no way of knowing until you can drive."

In Earnhardt Jr.'s case, he realized he wasn't all there but "wasn't willing" to tell anyone because of the impact it could have on his season. Would he lose his shot at a championship in the midst of his best and most consistent season ever?

"With the Chase coming up...if I was to volunteer myself to medical attention and be removed from the car, I didn't know how difficult it would be to get back in," he said.

Earnhardt Jr. chose to seek out a doctor's advice after the Talladega wreck rattled him. But for parts of six weeks, he was on the track at 200 mph while his brain wasn't at full health.

"I think you saw the process work in terms of Dale Jr. knowing he had an issue," O'Donnell said.

But did it?

"Concussions are mostly self-policed, and only you know how bad they are," Brad Keselowski said. "Whatever amount he had (after Kansas) wasn't enough to feel like it was a detriment to others, whereas this time, it is."

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Allmendinger to return at Charlotte

For the first time since his reinstatement following a failed drug test, AJ Allmendinger will be starting a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

Allmendinger will drive the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing in Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Originally, Regan Smith was tabbed to drive the car after Kurt Busch, Phoenix's previous driver, took Smith's ride this week at Furniture Row Racing.

However, Smith has moved over to Hendrick Motorsports as a temporary fill-in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out for the next two weeks with a concussion.

Ironically, Allmendinger was the original replacement for Busch at Penske Racing, where in 17 starts this season Allmendinger posted one top-five and three top-10 finishes. The team, however, released Allmendinger on Aug. 1 after he had been indefinitely suspended by NASCAR.

Saturday will mark Allmendinger's first race of any kind since Kentucky in June. The 30-year-old driver was suspended the following week at Daytona after testing positive for Adderall. He subsequently entered NASCAR's Road to Recovery program which he successfully completed last month making him eligible to return to competition.

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Were signs of Earnhardt Jr. concussion missed?

The news today that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the next two NASCAR races due to a concussion sustained at Talladega left everyone wondering if they missed signs of a head injury after Sunday's race.

It was a bit surprising to see Earnhardt Jr. wincing and rubbing his head so much after crashing at Talladega, but the driver twice said he was OK when reporters asked how he felt.

"Yeah, I mean, I just took a lot of hard shots," he said then.

While he seemed a bit out of sorts during the interview, it appeared to be more of an emotional reaction than the reaction of a man who had just sustained a concussion. He wasn't spacey or distant or any of the signs you'd think would be associated with a head injury; rather, it seemed he was just disgusted with restrictor-plate racing – which is exactly what he said.

I still wondered, though. So during a phone interview with Earnhardt Jr. on Tuesday, I brought up the topic again.

"It just looked like you were holding your head," I said. "But you feel OK?"

"Yeah, I feel fine," he answered, with as normal of a tone as someone could have.

Clearly, though, he didn't feel fine on Wednesday – his 38th birthday. Earnhardt Jr. went to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. On medical orders, he will miss the next two NASCAR races at Charlotte and Kansas (Earnhardt Jr. was never examined after Talladega because he drove his car back to the garage).

In fact, the Associated Press reported this morning Earnhardt Jr. also sustained another concussion when he crashed during the Kansas tire test. In that respect, this was Earnhardt Jr.'s second concussion in two months – and that's a big concern for NASCAR's most popular driver.

Earnhardt Jr. is set to address the media at 11 a.m. Eastern time, along with team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Steve Letarte.

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