Clint Bowyer gained ground in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by winning Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Bowyer, who is in his first season driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, conserved enough fuel late in the 500-mile race and then barely held off Denny Hamlin at the finish to claim his third win of the season and the eighth of his Sprint Cup Series career.
"Who would have thought in a million years after making this switch and coming over to a new family (MWR) and everything that was new that we would be in victory lane three times," Bowyer said. "Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship."
Brad Keselowski, the current points leader, led the most laps with 139, but during a round of green-flag pit stops with 60 laps remaining, Keselowski ran out of fuel as he coasted onto pit road. His 22-second stop cost him valuable track position. He went from being the leader to running outside the top-10. His 11th-place run marked his worst finish up to this point in this year's Chase.
"It's like playing blackjack," Keselowski said. "Sometimes you're going to get a good deal, but you're not going to win them all. We know that. You hope that when you're sitting there with 13 that you just can't have a lot of chips in the pile, and we didn't. We didn't lose too much. We got 11th out of the day."
Bowyer, who had complained about the performance of his car earlier in the race, benefited from pit strategy as he made his last stop with 58 laps left. He took the lead for good with 24 laps to go when the other frontrunners were forced to pit for gas.
"If you don't have the fastest car, you better have options," Bowyer's crew chief, Brian Pattie, said.
Hamlin chased down Bowyer in the closing laps, but Bowyer crossed the finish line 0.4 seconds ahead of him.
"It was good to have a fuel-mileage race somewhat go our way, and (crew chief) Darian (Grubb) made the gutsy call to bring us in and lose all of our track position in the middle of the race, which I was kind of frustrated with," Hamlin said. "But obviously he knew what he was doing, and we saved the fuel that we needed. We slowed down just enough to finish second. But it'll be interesting to see how much fuel we had left and whether we could have cut the reins a little bit sooner and passed (Bowyer). We just needed one more lap."
Bowyer's fuel tank went dry on his cool-down lap, preventing him from doing a victory burnout. His No. 15 MWR crew had to push the car into victory lane.
"What a wild race," he said. "I wanted to do a burnout. Am I ever going to get to do a burnout?"
Bowyer's first two wins this season came in June 24 road-course race in Sonoma, Calif. and the regular-season-ending event on Sept. 8 at Richmond. Prior to his first win at Charlotte, Bowyer had finished no better than sixth in his past nine races at this 1.5-mile racetrack.
"This is my worst racetrack," he admitted. "To be able to come here and compete and have cars capable of qualifying in the top-five and racing up front, that means a lot to me."
Jimmie Johnson finished third, while Greg Biffle, the pole sitter, and Kyle Busch, who is not in this year's Chase, rounded out the top-five.
"We started saving with double the distance, so I knew we were going to be fine," Johnson said. "We were just being really cautious. We didn't want to chase (Hamlin) there and get ourselves into trouble. We're getting a lot better at this fuel-mileage racing. It's a tough thing to do, and we've worked hard to get it right."
Keselowski remained atop the championship standings, but Johnson trimmed Keselowski's lead from 14 points to seven. Hamlin trails by 15 points.
Bowyer is now 28 points out of the lead. He entered this race 40 markers behind.
Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, a title contender, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr., who is Bowyer's teammate and also in the Chase, completed the top-10. Only the top-six drivers finished on the lead lap.
Other Chase drivers and their finishing positions included: Tony Stewart (13th), Matt Kenseth (14th), Kevin Harvick (16th) and Jeff Gordon (18th).
Regan Smith, who substituted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, suffered engine failure on lap 62 and ended up finishing 38th. Earnhardt Jr., who's in the Chase, sustained a concussion during last weekend's last-lap crash at Talladega. He will also miss next week's race at Kansas. Smith will drive the car there.
"I think the important part was is that we had a really fast race car," Smith said. "We had a good first adjustment there, but we went just a little too far with it and got a little too free. We needed one more stop, and I think we would have had it dialed in. It's disappointing. I'm looking forward to next week.
This was the first Cup Series race that either Earnhardt Jr. or his father, Dale Earnhardt, was not in the starting lineup since 1979. Earnhardt Jr. fell to last place in the Chase standings, 86 points behind.