CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — The top title contenders ran 1-2-3 for a bit at Charlotte Motor Speedway, setting it up to separate themselves from the rest of the championship field.
Then Brad Keselowski ran out of gas for the second night in a row, and Clint Bowyer was there to capitalize.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship got a whole lot tighter Saturday night: Bowyer's victory, his first of the Chase and career-best third of the season, pushed him into what could be a four-man title picture. He jumped up to fourth in the standings, 28 points behind leader Keselowski at the halfway point of the 10-race Chase.
"Five races left, and we're still in contention for a championship," Bowyer said.
In part, because it was a disastrous night for Keselowski.
He dominated the race but his Penske Racing team made its second mistake of the weekend, its strategy backfiring when his No. 2 Dodge ran out of gas with 58 laps remaining. Keselowski went from a likely win to a lap down and an 11th-place finish. He also had his lead in the standings sliced in half to seven points over five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
"Win some lose some guys, it's all good," he immediately told his Penske crew in a pep talk over his radio.
Keselowski, who also ran out of gas Friday night in the Nationwide Series race because of a fueling error, then asked his crew if he led the most laps Saturday night. Indeed — he led 139 of the 334 — but had little to show for his effort.
"It's blackjack, you're not going to win every hand," he said. "When you got a bad deal you have to try not to have too many chips on the table."
But Keselowski was able to see a silver lining in still finishing 11th.
"It was the worst-case scenario," he said. "We minimized the damage as best we could."
Denny Hamlin finished second and is third in the Chase, 15 points back, and Johnson finished third. Neither felt all that bad for Keselowski.
"Live by the sword, die by the sword," Hamlin said.
"I don't know how much it hurt him at the end of the day," Johnson said. "I've been doing this long enough, too, when you see something happen, in your mind you're like there's an opportunity and before you know it, it happens to you."
Both had to play their own fuel-saving game, especially in the closing laps. Hamlin couldn't make a run at winner Bowyer, and Johnson said he couldn't try to chase down Hamlin.
"We were just being really cautious and didn't want to go out there and chase (Hamlin) and get ourselves in trouble," Johnson said. "We're getting really good at this fuel mileage stuff, it's hard to get it right."
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