All Jimmie Johnson needed was a little more gas.
With 31 laps to go in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as the drivers ahead of him took a trip to pit road, the seven-time champion assumed the lead. It was a risk Johnson and his team were qualified to take, with eight previous victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But it was a failed effort, as Johnson hit empty with two laps to go and Austin Dillon stormed past him to claim his first Cup series win.
“I didn’t know we were thinking fuel,” Johnson said. “I could have done a lot better job with the front side of the run to put us in a better position. Then when I got the news about saving fuel, I did all that I could from that point and just came up a little bit short.”
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The strategy worked for a while, as Johnson held off the field the next 30 laps. He hit his target lap time at Lap 374, and his team determined he had 25 laps to go before empty.
But as laps leader Martin Truex and Dillon started gaining, Johnson started pressing.
His lap time improved, but his longevity waned. By the final two laps, he had nothing left in the tank.
“I was just trying to be patient with the No. 48,” 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.”
Just like that, it was over. With two laps to go, Johnson sputtered and settled into 17th place as Dillon – who also steered clear of a pit stop down the stretch – coasted the final two laps and become the seventh first-time Cup Series winner in Coca-Cola 600 history.
“When he ran out, I figured I’d go back in and save where I was lifting and it worked out,” Dillon said. “I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to Victory Lane.”
By the end, Johnson said he didn’t even know where he finished. But his team was all too aware. After the race, crew chief Chad Knaus stood a few feet from Johnson’s trailer, a look of disbelief drawn on his face as he tapped his foot in a pool of strewn gasoline.
All the fuel in the world couldn’t make a difference now.