CONCORD, N.C. — On a night when it appeared that Martin Truex Jr. would stake his claim as the current-era master of NASCAR’s longest race, a fuel mileage gamble handed Austin Dillon his first-career win and a golden ticket into the playoffs.
After pitting under caution with 70 to go, Dillon used a perfectly-timed economy run over the final green-flag stint at Charlotte Motor Speedway, taking the lead as Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel with two laps to go and coasting home to win the Coca Cola 600.
Dillon had to run just hard enough to hold back a charging Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who both pitted inside of 40 to go and were in full attack mode coming to the finish line.
The third-generation driver crossed the checkered flag just eight tenths of a second ahead of Busch, leading just two laps — the final two — en route to the win in his 133rd career start.
Growing up only 75 minutes from CMS in nearby Lewisville, N.C., an emotional infield party with his crew and equally-emotional victory lane celebration capped a night extended by nearly two hours due to rain on lap 143.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet. I can’t believe it,” said Dillon, who becomes the seventh driver to score their first win on the sport’s most grueling night. “I was just really focused on those last laps. My fiancé wrote in the car, ‘When you keep God in the first place, he will take you places you never imagined.’ And I never imagined to be here in victory lane at the 600. Praise the Lord and all these guys who work so hard. … We’re in the Chase. It’s awesome.”
Dillon said that his tactic was to hold serve behind Johnson, looking for the seven-time champion to run out thanks to the pressure at the end.
“I was just trying to be patient with the No. 48; I could see him saving,” he explained. “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 then we had to push it back to victory lane. The good Lord is blessing us tonight and I can’t thank my grandfather (Richard Childress) enough. He’s put a lot into me. I know I complain a lot, but (ECR Engines) got me in Victory Lane tonight and the fuel mileage was great. So, thank you guys for everything you do.”
Kicking off the final stage, Truex used a flawless restart with 94 laps to go to power from fourth to second and march back into contention, giving chase to then-leader Kyle Busch as the endurance classic wound into its final moments.
Following a caution for Danica Patrick smacking the wall with 72 to go, the leaders came down pit road and found themselves a reported three-to-five laps short.
Restarting five laps later, Truex stormed to Busch’s inside to seize the point and pulled out to a quick two-second advantage, holding that margin until his final pit stop with 33 to go.
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