NASCAR Barometer: Edwards Stretches Fuel to Victory

NASCAR Barometer: Edwards Stretches Fuel to Victory

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

The cap to Memorial Day weekend's traditional racing calendar was NASCAR's marathon race, the Coca-Cola 600. The long distance always poses a serious challenge to teams and drivers, and often opens the door to differing strategies. While some teams elected to run as hard as they could, Carl Edwards ran a conservative pace and stretched his final tank of fuel to the finish. The distance he gained on track by going one fewer stop was too much for the other contenders to overcome.

While Martin Truex Jr. was arguably the fastest car throughout most of the distance, he wasn't able to parlay that strength into a visit to Victory Lane. Similar faces seen at the point in the NASCAR All-Star weekend took their turns rotating through the front of the field, and there weren't too many surprises other than Jimmie Johnson's multiple spins. It became apparent as the miles ticked off that the lack of a caution period in the final miles would favor a play on fuel mileage, and that is just what Edwards needed to scoop his first trophy of the season and his first with Joe Gibbs Racing.

UPGRADE

Carl Edwards – The progress that Joe Gibbs Racing made through the All-Star break and into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 paid off. Every team driver qualified strongly, and each ran at the sharp end of the field. In the end, it was Edwards who stretched his final fuel stop farther than others to cycle to the lead with just

The cap to Memorial Day weekend's traditional racing calendar was NASCAR's marathon race, the Coca-Cola 600. The long distance always poses a serious challenge to teams and drivers, and often opens the door to differing strategies. While some teams elected to run as hard as they could, Carl Edwards ran a conservative pace and stretched his final tank of fuel to the finish. The distance he gained on track by going one fewer stop was too much for the other contenders to overcome.

While Martin Truex Jr. was arguably the fastest car throughout most of the distance, he wasn't able to parlay that strength into a visit to Victory Lane. Similar faces seen at the point in the NASCAR All-Star weekend took their turns rotating through the front of the field, and there weren't too many surprises other than Jimmie Johnson's multiple spins. It became apparent as the miles ticked off that the lack of a caution period in the final miles would favor a play on fuel mileage, and that is just what Edwards needed to scoop his first trophy of the season and his first with Joe Gibbs Racing.

UPGRADE

Carl Edwards – The progress that Joe Gibbs Racing made through the All-Star break and into Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 paid off. Every team driver qualified strongly, and each ran at the sharp end of the field. In the end, it was Edwards who stretched his final fuel stop farther than others to cycle to the lead with just a handful of laps remaining. The first-year JGR driver held onto a comfortable margin over Greg Biffle in the closing laps to score his first victory with the new team and put one foot toward a championship run. Edwards will have his full confidence back next week in Dover where he won in 2007, but hasn't finished in the top 10 since the fall of 2012.

Greg Biffle – The award for most-improved goes to Biffle for his efforts at Charlotte. He won a segment of the Sprint Showdown to make it into the All-Star race, and then backed that performance up with a fast qualifying effort for the Coca-Cola 600. The race was not different either. Biffle played the fuel game similarly to Edwards, and that was enough to give him his first top-5 of the season. It was Biffle's best finish since Daytona, and a big step in the right direction for Roush Fenway Racing. The team still has plenty of work to do to make this type of performance a regular occurrence, but there may be a light at the end of the tunnel now.

Brad Keselowski – Another pit infraction early in Sunday's 600-mile race dropped Keselowski in the running order. Luckily, last week's error was early enough in the race that he had ample time to fight back, unlike in the All-Star event. He shortly found himself in the lead when he didn't pit under caution for Johnson's spin, which gave him strong track position. The strategy the team used wasn't enough to cover the fuel play of Edwards, though. The night ended with the No. 2 finishing in seventh position. The Penske Racing team continues to carry the water for Ford, and their competitiveness remains among the best. Keselowski comes to Dover with back-to-back runner-up finishes at the track.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex only failed to finish inside of the top-10 once leading into Charlotte last week. It has been a fantastic season for him and the team, and they continued flexing their muscle by leading a hefty sum of laps again. The No. 78 settled in comfortably at the front of the pack for much of Sunday's distance, but a fuel strategy play meant there weren't enough laps to race back to the lead. He finished fifth, however. Truex has never looked more likely to win than he does now. He has won at Dover before, and his past statistics pale in comparison to how well he has been running in 2015. He can be expected to be a contender this week, perhaps even grabbing that trophy.

Kurt Busch – Picking up where he left off in the All-Star race two weeks ago, Busch was just as strong in the Coca-Cola 600. He is rapidly staking his claim as the heir apparent to Kevin Harvick's success at Stewart-Haas Racing, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him capture a win or two before arriving at the Chase at the end of the season. He led more than 100 laps Sunday night, and landed another top-10 finish as his reward. Busch won the fall Dover race in 2011 and has a pair of 18th-place finishes in the last two races there. His experience at the track, coupled with his current pace, make him a strong option for victory this week.

DOWNGRADE

Jimmie Johnson - An early spin put Johnson behind the competition, but not out of the running. Unfortunately, after fighting his way back inside the top 10 he spun again, but made contact with the inside wall. The car immediately went behind the wall, and any chance for back-to-back wins was extinguished. It was a bitter disappointment for a team that clearly had the speed to win. However, looking forward, Johnson has won nearly 35 percent of the races he has entered at Dover. Each of his last three races at the track produced top-5 finishes, and two of those were wins. There isn't a driver with a better average finish there, and he is sure to be one of the favorites again this week.

Jeff Gordon – After leading the IndyCar field to the green flag of Sunday's Indy 500, Gordon hopped in a plane to Charlotte and then strapped in his car for 600 miles of racing. It all went downhill when he was forced to pit twice just past halfway when the team didn't get enough lug nuts tightened. The No. 24's speed just wasn't enough to overcome any mistake, and despite coming some way forward, he was only able to finish 15th. That means he has now finished outside of the top 10 twice in the last four races. His Dover record includes five wins and 25 top-10 finishes from 44 efforts, though. He should overcome last week's adversity relatively quickly.

David Ragan – After a very strong qualifying effort with his new team, Ragan was unable to reap any reward in Sunday's race. The No. 55 wasn't able to maintain position in the top 10 for very long once the race was underway, and ultimately Ragan finished 41st after trouble. There were high hopes for a good race Sunday since Michael Waltrip Racing has excelled in the 600 in the past, but nothing seemed to go right this time. Ragan is still settling into his new surroundings, and having never scored a top-10 finish at Dover despite 17th attempts, it will be difficult to expect any kind of fantasy production from him this week, especially following a challenging 600.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer's woes continue to persist. Charlotte wasn't expected to be a venue ripe for success for him, but he also didn't want the race he got. 20th position was the best the team could manage, and they were never a factor among the leaders throughout the long distance. Despite advancing to the All-Star race two weeks ago by winning a Sprint Showdown segment, Bowyer couldn't replicate the success. His last top-10 finish came at Richmond in April, and he faces the very real possibility that he could extend his failure to score a top finish for a fifth-consecutive race in Dover this week. His Dover resume isn't bad, 11 top-10s in 18 races, but his current trajectory doesn't support a strong performance.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Kyle Busch – Judging by his efforts in the All-Star race, Busch did not lose much speed in his time recovering from injury. The only question that remained was whether or not he had the fitness to remain running that strongly for a full race distance. He proved he was up to the task Sunday when he went the full distance in NASCAR's longest race, and was among the frontrunners for most of the distance. He finished 11th, but was a regular in the top 10 for the entire night. Erik Jones was on standby should he not be able to make it, but his services were not needed. Busch is back, and he is hungry to qualify for the Chase.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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