Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Coca-Cola 600 gamble comes up short in third-place finish

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Less than 65 laps remained in the Coca-Cola 600, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team needed to do something different.

They had accepted that their Nationwide Chevrolet, which started 15th, couldn’t match the speed of the No. 41 of Kurt Busch and No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. Earnhardt and crew decided to gamble on fuel mileage. The latter had bit Earnhardt in the final corner of the 2011 Coke 600 when he ran out of fuel coming to the white flag while leading.

With 62 laps left, crew chief Greg Ives chose to stop, and Earnhardt came down pit road with Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth as the rest of the lead-lap cars stayed on the track.

The rest began pitting with 23 laps to go. When Truex pitted with 21 laps remaining, Ives instructed Earnhardt to use only 80 percent of the throttle on straightaways to conserve fuel.

As pitting cars brought Earnhardt into the top three, he couldn’t climb any higher.

“Save, save, save or what?” Earnhardt demanded over the radio with three laps to go, as Edwards and Biffle got farther away, and Kenseth closed.

It didn’t matter, as Edwards was good to go on gas and took the checkered flag with his first win of the season, while Earnhardt placed third.

“It ain’t tough,” Earnhardt told Fox. “We got a win, so it doesn’t really matter. I was just hoping the guys up in front of me would run too hard and run out of gas. I had Matt beat as far as speed.”

Earnhardt now is the only driver to earn a top five in all five races at 1.5-mile tracks this season, though none of those includes wins. His only victory this year was at Talladega Superspeedway, which made the third-place finish easier to swallow.

Now Earnhardt sits fourth in the driver points standings, 72  behind leader Kevin Harvick.

“We just tried to go for the win there,” Earnhardt said. “I liked the gamble. We had a pretty good car. A little disappointed, those guys got a little more speed than us. ”