Here is a look at the winners and losers from the NASCAR weekend that was at Charlotte Motor Speedway:
Last year at this time, Brian Pattie was unemployed after having been fired as the crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya. Fast forward 12 months and Pattie is heading a team that has been to Victory Lane three times and is still in championship contention with five races left in the season. And in a testament to his ability atop the pit box, all three wins have come not because of sheer speed, but due to the strategy implemented by Pattie – as evidenced by the fact that Clint Bowyer has yet to have enough gas to complete a post-race burnout.
The No. 11 team
The biggest weakness of Denny Hamlin's No. 11 team – and what may prove to be its undoing – would undoubtedly center on the team's inability to save and stretch its fuel as long as others can. But in a race that was clear to everyone was going to come down to fuel mileage, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb overcame their biggest Achilles' heel and left Charlotte with a runner-up finish.
And although it was frustrating for Hamlin to have a car good enough to race for the win and not be able to do so, he trimmed eight points off the deficit between himself and Brad Keselowski. In the big picture, that's a successful night.
He may have only been on the track for 61 laps, but in that brief amount of time Regan Smith made the most of his opportunity driving for the premiere organization in NASCAR. Starting 26th while substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car, Smith deftly raced his way up the running order and was in the top 10 rather quickly. Unfortunately, a sour engine ended his night prematurely and prevented him from getting the finish he otherwise deserved for his effort.
Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe
Considering he has two wins in the Chase, five overall and is leading the standings, it's hard to find fault with the go-for-broke approach Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe have utilized thus far this season. However, that tactic backfired at Charlotte, as Keselowski ran out of fuel one lap earlier than expected and had to coast to the pits.
And while the collateral damage could have been far worse, it still was costly. Instead of expanding his lead on Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, Keselowski saw Johnson trim the gap by half – from 14 points to seven – while Hamlin is lurking just 15 points back. Whether Keselowski and Wolfe can recover from the first body blow they've taken in the Chase remains to be seen.
Forty two points back entering Charlotte, the dream was still there that Jeff Gordon could inexplicably rally and win his first series title in 11 years. The thinking was all he needed to do was keep finishing in the top three for this to become a reality – which wasn't that far-fetched considering Gordon had finished third or better in six of the last seven races.
However, after a 18th-place finish Saturday night, that dream is no more, as Gordon now finds himself 50 points back and all but eliminated from championship contention. At least it was fun while it lasted.
Martin Truex Jr.
Understandably, this is going to come across as harsh after Martin Truex Jr. finished 10th at Charlotte. But these are the facts: In almost three full seasons with Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex has yet to win a single race in 103 starts. Yet there was stablemate Clint Bowyer – with a brand-new team, mind you – winning for the third time this year. So what exactly is preventing Truex from matching this performance or, at the least, coming close to doing so?