Austin Dillon had just enough fuel to make it across the finish to win his first career Monster Energy Cup Series race Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon each elected to gamble on fuel strategy as the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race, closed with an extended green flag run. But when Johnson’s tank went dry with three laps remaining, Dillon inherited the lead then nursed his car to the checkered flag, just ahead of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who had pitted and were fast closing.
The 27-year-old Dillon stretched his fuel 70 laps to earn his first victory in his 133rd Cup start. Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin completed the top five, followed by Kurt Busch, rookie Erik Jones, pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Johnson, who admitted he’s not the best at saving fuel, slid to 17th.
“I was just trying to be patient with (Johnson),” Dillon said. “I could see him saving. I thought I’d saved enough early where I could attack at the end, but I tried to wait as long as possible. And when he ran out, I figured I’d go back in and save where I was lifting and it worked out. I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to victory lane.”
Dillon’s triumph also marked the first premier division win for the No. 3 since the late Dale Earnhardt reached victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway in Oct. 2000. Richard Childress, Dillon’s grandfather and the car owner for both Dillon and Earnhardt, did not reuse the number until he promoted his grandson to Cup in 2014.
Earnhardt, one NASCAR’s all-time greats, was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona. He and Childress teamed to win six Cup championships.
“I know Dale is up there smiling down because he would want this win, he'd want to see it with Austin,” Childress said. “When I looked up and seen the 3 on top of the board, I was standing there doing an interview, that's when I got emotional. It's so special to see that 3 in winner's circle again.”
Truex dominated the Coca-Cola 600 for a second straight year, leading a race-high 233 laps. A year ago, the Furniture Row Racing driver led a NASCAR-record 392 laps of a possible 400.
“That stings a little bit,” Truex said. “We just it a little bit on our last adjustment. I think if not for that we probably could’ve gotten the 3.”
But Truex’s third-place effort was enough to capitalize on Kyle Larson’s troubles, and move him into the series points lead by seven points with 14 regular season races remaining.
Larson’s frustrating weekend included missing qualifying on Thursday after his No. 42 Chevrolet couldn’t pass technical inspection before the session concluded. Then in the race, Larson, who moved up to as high as third, hit the wall twice in the second half. The last incident caused significant damage to his car and ended his night. He finished 33rd, his worst result of the season, which dropped him to second in the standings.
“Just hate it that I made a mistake there in Turn 3 and got in the wall,” Larson said. “I was not even running hard up there. I just got loose and then I hit it and it ruined our day.”