Clint Bowyer celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint… (Jerry Markland / Getty Images…)
CONCORD, N.C. — A week after the restrictor-plate tentacles of Talladega got their grip on a bunch of drivers, another nemesis popped up at Charlotte Motor Speedway:
The Fuel Mileage Monster.
It zapped Chase leader Brad Keselowski and was benevolent to Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer won Saturday night's Bank of America 500 and, most important, shaved precious points off Keselowski's lead as the man to beat in the Chase. Keselowski is now just seven points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 15 points ahead of Denny Hamlin.
"This thing is still wide open for everybody," said Johnson, who finished third, right behind Hamlin.
Keselowski pushed it too hard and ran out of fuel with 58 laps to go and had to coast into his pit stall.
Keselowski, who had led the most laps of the race, dropped to 14th, more than 15 seconds behind, and could never catch the lead pack. He finished 11th.
"It was like playing blackjack," Keselowski said of the fuel mileage snafu. "Some times you're going to get a good deal but you're not going to win them all."
Bowyer barely made it to the finish. He ran out of fuel before he got to Victory Lane.
He is 28 points behind Keselowski.
The big news of race week focused on Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also will miss at least the next race after suffering concussions during a tire test in Kansas and then during a last-lap melee at Talladega last weekend.
Earnhardt wasn't even at the track on doctor's orders. He needs rest, and the noise and the visual over-stimulation of watching a race would not have been a good thing.
"I would love to race this weekend, and I feel perfectly normal and feel like I could compete if I were allowed to compete this weekend," he said. "But I think that the basis of this whole deal is that I've had two concussions in the last four to five weeks, and you can't layer concussions. It gets extremely dangerous."
As it turned out, Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevy didn't last long Saturday night. Regan Smith, the replacement driver for Earnhardt, lasted just 61 laps before the car got knocked out with engine failure.
"It's disappointing," Smith said. "It's a good team, it's a good car and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports does a great job. I'm looking forward to next week. We get three days to test when we get there to Kansas and we will see if we can get the AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet up front there. I feel confident we will have the same speed we had here."
Earnhardt's absence was definitely a rare situation, given the demands of racers who are essentially independent contractors.
The last time a top-tier driver had to sit out was in 2010 when Brian Vickers was diagnosed with blood clots.
This was equally dangerous, if not more. And even though Earnhardt and his team said he will be back in two weeks, there are concerns that he may never be able to race again.
"I think a lot of times we think of where this sport has been safety wise; guys breaking arms; major injuries that either kept them out of their cars, or possibly even death at times," Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon said. "But the thing is, these days, we've made a lot of things better, but I think Junior is a reminder that these head injuries, we've seen it in other sports, can be very, very serious."