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."
Everyone had to keep one eye on the gas gauge starting very early in the race, even as Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin ran out front midway through the race in a frustrating moment for the competition.
"It was pretty cool to see the 2, the 11 and the 48 running 1-2-3 through a large portion of the night," Johnson said.
But it was Bowyer in Victory Lane at the end, for the third time this season in his first year with Michael Waltrip Racing and manufacturer Toyota, a partnership that's working out far better than expected.
"Who thought in a million years I'd walk into the situation I've walked into?" he asked in Victory Lane.
The race was the first since 1979 without an Earnhardt as Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out with a concussion. The announcement was made Thursday after Earnhardt sought medical attention for a lingering headache from the 25-car accident Sunday at Talladega.
His doctor said he also sustained a concussion in an Aug. 29 crash at Kansas.
Regan Smith got the start for Earnhardt, but it was short-lived. The engine in the No. 88 Chevrolet failed during the first third of the race, sending Smith to the garage for the night.
Smith is scheduled to be back in the car next week at Kansas, which has two open days of testing and gives Smith more time to get acclimated with the Hendrick Motorsports crew.
"It's a good team, it's a good car and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports does a great job," Smith said. "I'm looking forward to next week. I'm getting comfortable with the cars, comfortable with the equipment. Should be fun to go to Kansas."
Kurt Busch, who was hired to replace Smith at Furniture Row Racing next season, got a jump on that job early by taking over the job this week and finished 21st in his debut race. That opened up Busch's seat at Phoenix Racing, and Smith was scheduled to drive that car at Charlotte.
But when Smith got the call to replace Earnhardt, the team gave a chance to AJ Allmendinger, who made his first start since his July suspension for failing a random drug test. Allmendinger, who had not raced since June 29, finished 24th.
Greg Biffle, who set a track record in winning the pole, finished fourth. It moved him up three spots in the points to sixth. He was followed in the finishing order by non-Chase drivers Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Carl Edwards.
Kasey Kahne was eighth, but it cost him a spot in the Chase standings and he's now fifth. Joey Logano, winner of Friday night's Nationwide race, was ninth and Chase driver Martin Truex Jr. was 10th to give MWR all three of its drivers in the top 10.