May 24, 2015
By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
CONCORD, N.C. – Will the mystery winner of Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 enter and sign in please?
Hint: It’s the guy who does back flips every time he takes the checkered flag.
But for the first 370 of 400 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway, no one would have picked Carl Edwards or his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota as the likely winner of the season’s 12th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin had spent the lion’s share of time at the head of the field, but none of that mattered when Edwards got 62 laps out of his last tank of fuel and took the checkered flag 4.785 seconds ahead of Greg Biffle, who also was on a fuel-saving strategy.
In fact, the top four finishers all stretched their gas mileage after pit stops under caution on Lap 337. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran third, followed by polesitter Matt Kenseth and Truex, who led a race-high 131 laps.
Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Hamlin (53 laps led), Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch (118 laps led) completed the top 10. Kyle Busch came home 11th in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race of the season, after missing the first 11 races of the season because of injuries sustained Feb. 21 at Daytona.
The victory was Edwards first of the season, his first for Joe Gibbs Racing, his first at Charlotte and the 24th of his career.
But after the very early stages of the race, Edwards wasn’t a factor until fuel strategy came into play in the closing laps.
Soon after Jimmie Johnson spun off Turn 4 on Lap 90 to cause the second caution of the afternoon, the race evolved into a two-car contest between the Chevrolets of Kurt Busch and Truex.
Within two laps of a restart on Lap 95, Busch drove from ninth to the lead, passing Joey Logano for the top spot on lap 97. From that point, Busch and Truex swapped stints at the head of the field, and by the time Johnson spun off Turn 4 and smacked the inside wall on Lap 273 to bring out the caution flag for the fifth time, Busch had racked up 118 laps led and Truex 59.
But another quick yellow flag on Lap 282 for Ryan Blaney’s blown engine created the opportunity for divergent strategies and scrambled the running order. Truex was one of nine drivers who stayed out under the caution, but both Harvick and Kurt Busch came to pit road for fresh rubber and restarted 10th and 11th, respectively, on lap 292.
Gradually, methodically, Harvick and Kurt Busch drove back toward the front, but the contrarian strategies introduced another major player into the mix. Denny Hamlin surged to the front of the field and led 53 laps before pitting with a loose wheel on Lap 363 and giving up the lead.
That put Truex back in front, with Harvick chasing, and both drivers needing one more pit stop to get to the end of the race.
Edwards, Biffle, Earnhardt and Kenseth, on the other hand, stopped with 62 laps left, and the decision to come to pit road and gamble on fuel proved decisive—and stole a victory form Truex’s dominant car.