Five things we learned at Charlotte
Despite not liking the track, Kevin Harvick found a way to win the Coca-Cola 600
Although he ran out of gas, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a strong showing in Charlotte
A critical late pit stop helped David Ragan nab a career-best second-place finish
The Closer did it again Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick won his third Sprint Cup race of the season by passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead in the fourth turn of the final lap in the 603-mile race, the longest in NASCAR history.
Harvick led on only the last lap to win at Auto Club Speedway in California on Mar. 27 and the final four laps in his victory at Martinsville, Va., on April 3. He's led nine laps total in three wins this season.
"Today, we were lucky," Harvick said.
Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet was in the same boat as the rest of the front pack for the green-white-checkered, lining up fifth. The reality was he'd saved fuel better than the rest.
Leader Kasey Kahne ran out of gas coming to the green and Brad Keselowski ran into him, triggering a multicar wreck. Earnhardt shot into the lead and was headed for his first win since 2008 at Michigan until he ran dry on the back straight.
1. Harvick may not like the track, but he found a way to win on it. Harvick had one top-5, a second-place in 2001, and four top-10s in 20 previous races.
"It's nothing against the racetrack, I just don't like racing here," he said from Victory Lane. "It doesn't fit what I do. Even now. We didn't have a spectacular run. I griped and griped and griped about how terrible it (car) was. When I pull in the gate, I just have a bad attitude, so hopefully this helps."
Charlotte also has the fifth race in the Chase and Harvick should come back in October feeling better about his chances. It will make him a greater threat to win the championship. A positive attitude can work wonders.
2. Despite falling short, Earnhardt's season continues to build momentum and his confidence. Junior coasted across for seventh, his sixth top-10 in 2011, and nearly halfway to the Chase, he's fourth in points.
"We weren't supposed to make it," he said. "We were running out of gas and we knew it. We played our hand. I'm disappointed we didn't win and I know all our fans are disappointed to come so close. If we had won, it would have been a gift.
"We're going to be around for a long time and we'll get plenty, don't worry. We were lucky to get away with anything (points) when you run out of fuel on the backstretch."
3. David Ragan's late pit stop delivered a career-best second. Ragan's No. 6 Ford ran in the top 10 for most of the race and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer's decision to bring him in for four tires and fuel under the final caution (started by Jimmie Johnson's engine going up in smoke) set up a mad dash to the finish.
Ragan lined up 10th for the green-white-checkered and wove his way through the wreck. "We were fast, a top three or four car, and we were very fortunate not to get caught up in the wreck," he said. "When you have fuel and tires, you can drive your guts out.
"I thought it was gonna get ugly there at the end, which it did for everyone else and not us. That last caution came out, we were gonna be like a lap or two short. If we would have been leading, we would have stayed out. I thought Drew made a pretty gutsy call to come in and pit. That's a finish that we deserved, but we just went about doing it the hard way."
It was Ragan's best finish since third at Richmond in 2007.
4. Joey Logano went from 15th to third in the final two laps. Logano followed Ragan through the wreck at the outset of the green-white-checkered and took the No. 20 to his first top-five of a difficult season.
"I'm just happy to get one here, as many as we got taken away this year like that," he said. "We'll take one and get a good finish out of this day. Hopefully, this will put some momentum on our side and we have some good race tracks coming up for us. We need it and we'll get our Home Depot ride going again and we'll be just be fine."
Logano went down a lap twice. "It's just never giving up, man," he said. "That's all it is. None of these guys do. My whole team doesn't and the 43 drivers don't. So, that's what you really got to be in it the whole time and got to keep focused and keep your head in the game. There's times you say, 'We're definitely out of it going down a lap twice.' To come home with a decent finish like that -- we'll take it for sure."
5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 11th in his Sprint Cup debut. Stenhouse, a Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide driver, was drafted into the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford to replace Trevor Bayne, who has been sidelined by health issues. The No. 21 wasn't in the top-35 in points and Stenhouse's first challenge was qualifying it into the starting field with 48 cars entered. Stenhouse put it ninth on the grid.
Stenhouse, 23, scrapped the outside wall three times, but ran in the top-20 for most of the race. It was impressive considering Stenhouse had never run a race over 300 miles. He has plenty of laps and pit stops to get into trouble.
"That was interesting," he said. "We were really tight to begin with and just lost a lot of track position and got down a couple of laps. I hit the wall a couple of times and then (crew chief) Donnie Wingo made a good call and got us to take the wave around when we were two laps down, the caution came back out and it worked out great for us.
"It was everything I thought it was gonna be. The 600 miles didn't seem too bad. I still feel pretty good, so that's good. Our trainer at the shop must be working me out pretty good."