CONCORD, N.C. – Austin Dillon put the iconic No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet back in Victory Lane in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Sunday night, winning the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Dillon did so by stretching his fuel more than seemed possible, passing Jimmie Johnson with two laps to go when the tank in Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ran dry.
“This hasn’t sunk in yet,” an overjoyed Dillon told FOX Sports in Victory Lane. “I can’t believe it. I was just really focused in on those last laps. … I never imagined to be here in Victory Lane at the Coke 600.”
Most of the field pitted for fuel and tires on Lap 368 of the 400-lap event that is NASCAR’s longest race.
But seven cars stayed out, including the No. 48 of Johnson and the No. 3 RCR Chevy of Dillon.
Both knew they might run out of fuel before the end – possibly with as many as five laps to go – and with two to go, Johnson did.
That left Dillon in the lead. He then held on to become the 10th first-time Cup winner at the 1.5-mile track and the seventh such winner in the Coca-Cola 600. It also clinched a berth for Dillon in NASCAR’s 10-race playoffs at the end of the season.
“We’re in the (playoffs), baby. That’s awesome,” said Dillon, who won in his first race with new crew chief Justin Alexander.
Dillon said he knew Johnson was in danger of running out of gas before he did.
“I was just trying to be patient with the 48,” he said. “I could see him up there, saving. I thought I had saved enough early where I could attack at the end, but I was trying to wait as long as possible.
“And when he ran out, I figured I would go back to where I was saving (on the track) and quit lifting. It worked out. I ran out at the line. It gurgled after I did one little (celebratory) spin. We had to push it back to Victory Lane.”
Kyle Busch won Stage 1 of the 600-mile race that was broken up into four equal 100-lap stages, passing Martin Truex Jr. with 11 to go in the segment after Truex had passed him for the lead just 14 laps earlier.
It was a precursor of much of the night that followed, as Truex and Busch proved to have two of the fastest cars throughout the long race.
One year removed from a Coca-Cola 600 in which he led 392 of 400 laps and more miles than any other Cup driver in the history of NASCAR, Truex was at it again.
He won Stage 2, taking his season-high sixth stage of the seaons and the playoff bonus point that goes with it. And even though Denny Hamlin won Stage 3, it didn’t take Truex and Busch long to work their way back to the front in the final 100-lap stage.
But the fuel gamble by Dillon ended up foiling their chances to win.
Busch ended up running second and Truex was third.
It didn’t take long for a major incident to occur in the marathon race.
On Lap 19 of the 400-lap event, a broken part that flew off the back of Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car was struck almost immediately by the oncoming No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott.
The bottom of Elliott’s front end caught fire and he slowed dramatically on the frontstretch, where he was plowed into from behind by Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
The impact lifted the rear end of Elliott’s car off the ground, as he and Keselowski both suffered heavy damage that prematurely ended their nights.
“This is so disappointing. … I hate it,” Elliott said.
“I ran right into the back of Chase,” Keselowski said. “Somebody broke in front of him and then he ran over what they broke and then he broke, so there were two cars broke in front of me and just oil everywhere.
“You couldn’t stop and you couldn’t turn. You couldn’t do anything. It’s a real bummer for our team.”
Several other drivers, including Erik Jones and Danica Patrick, suffered minor damage to their cars in the incident but were able to continue in the race — although Patrick ran into more trouble later in the race, hitting the wall twice.
Shortly after Matt DiBenedetto also hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 142, NASCAR called all the cars to pit road and cleared the CMS grandstands because there was lightning in the area. That brought out the red flag.
A heavy but very brief rainstorm followed. Even though it did not last long, the 1.5-mile track was drenched and required roughly 90 minutes to dry – which led to a red-flag delay of 1 hour and 40 minutes.
In the end, Dillon recorded the first win for the No. 3 RCR Cup car since the late Dale Earnhardt won his final NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega in October of 2000.
It took Dillon 133 Cup starts spread across seven years — the last four full time in the No. 3 — to earn his first career victory. He also won for his grandfather, car owner Richard Childress.
“I know Dale is up there smiling,” said Childress of Earnhardt, winner of six of his record-tying seven Cup championships with Childress as his car owner before his death in the 2001 Daytona 500. “He’d want this win, and he’d want it for Austin. … It’s so special to see that 3 in the winner’s circle again.”