CONCORD, N.C. — Armed with a new crew chief and a gas tank that held just enough fuel to get him to the end of 600 miles with less than a second to spare, Austin Dillon won the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series of his career and put the vaunted No. 3 Chevrolet back in Victory Lane for the first time since 2000.
Working for the first time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with crew chief Justin Alexander, Dillon was one of eight drivers who stayed on the track when the strongest cars in the Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway — the Toyotas of eventual runner up Kyle Busch and third-place Martin Truex Jr. — came to pit road on Lap 368 of 400.
Saving fuel for the entire run, Dillon trailed Jimmie Johnson, who also stayed out, until the seven-time champion ran out of gas with less than three laps left. With Busch and Truex in hot pursuit, Dillon had just enough fuel to get to the start/finish line.
The No. 3 Chevrolet owned by Dillon’s grandfather, Richard Childress, returned to Victory Lane for the first time since the late Dale Earnhardt won his last race on Oct. 15, 2000 at Talladega. After Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Childress retired the number in NASCAR’s premier series until Dillon ran his first full season of Monster Energy Series racing in 2014.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Dillon said in Victory Lane. “I can’t believe it. I was just really focused on those last laps. My fiancée wrote in the car, ‘When you keep God in first place, he will take you places you never imagined.’
“And I never imagined I be here at the 600 Victory Lane. Praise the Lord and all these guys who work so hard; and my pit crew is the best on pit road. I love it for them. We’re in the playoffs. It’s awesome.”
Dillon, who led only the final two laps, had to restrain himself from using too much fuel in pursuit of Johnson.
“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. 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.”
Matt Kenseth ran fourth, followed by Joe Gibbs racing teammate Denny Hamlin, as Toyotas claimed positions two through five.
The fireworks started early at the 1.5-mile track, more than six hours before the race ended. On Lap 20, five laps before a scheduled competition caution, a large piece of debris shot from the back of Jeffrey Earnhardt’s smoking No. 33 car into the path of Chase Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet.
The debris knocked a hole in the nose of Elliott’s car, and flames erupted beneath the engine compartment as fluid spilled from the Chevy. Brad Keselowski skidded through the oil, as if his No. 2 Ford had hit a patch of ice, and piled into the back of Elliott’s car, destroying both machines.
“Somebody broke, and there was just oil everywhere, and I couldn’t turn,” Keselowski said. “I ran into the back of Chase. 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 turn. You couldn’t do anything. It’s a real bummer for our team. We had a really fast Miller Lite Ford, and I think we had a shot at winning tonight, but that’s how it goes.”
Elliott was equally disappointed that his car was on a wrecker in the garage.
“The No. 33 broke something ahead of me and I ended up hitting it,” Elliott said. “I hit it pretty hard. I knew it had hurt our nose at least, then I saw some flames and figured we were laying down oil too, I guess.
“Brad couldn’t get stopped and ended up kind of finishing us off, but it was a bummer. I hate it. I don’t really know what you do about stuff like that. Just move on.”
After the subsequent restart on Lap 28, the rest of the first 100-lap stage ran caution-free, with Kyle Busch passing Truex on Lap 90 and pulling away to secure the playoff point accorded the stage winner.
Truex was leading when the caution flag flew for the third time on Lap 142 after Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 32 Ford slammed into the outside wall. Moments later, NASCAR red-flagged the race because of the threat of heavy rain and lightning in the area.
The rain arrived and drenched the track, forcing a delay of 1 hour, 39 minutes, 56 seconds before the cars started rolling again.
Truex dominated after a restart on Lap 176 and won the second stage going away. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota appeared headed for another victory in Stage 3 until series leader Kyle Larson blew a tire and pounded the wall on Lap 292.
“I got really loose into (Turn) 3 and hit the wall and got a lot of damage, and the tire started to go down and then exploded in (Turn) 1,” Larson said. “I just hate it that I made a mistake there in Turn 3 and got in the wall.
“I wasn’t even running hard up there. I just got loose and then I hit it and it ruined our day. I’m hoping to hold onto the point lead and then go to Dover next week and try to do better.”
(As it turned out, Truex took over the series lead by five points over Larson, with Keselowski 82 points back in third-place.)
After Larson’s accident, Truex lost three spots on pit road on Lap 294, ceding the stage win to Denny Hamlin.
But Truex, who led a race-high 233 laps — and led the most laps in the Coca-Cola 600 for the third straight year with only last year’s win to show for it — regained the top spot after a restart on Lap 334, clearing Kyle Busch through the first two corners, and soon pulled away to a two-second lead.
Then Dillon’s fuel-mileage play changed everything.
Note: The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was found to be missing a lug nut in post-race inspection.