CONCORD, N.C. — One by one the title contenders dropped out Saturday night, giving Jimmie Johnson a clear shot at widening his lead in the Chase for the Championship.
Not so fast, thought Jeff Burton, who used three gas-only pit stops to pull off a victory that catapulted him into title contention.
Burton culminated savvy pit strategy on a final stop, going into the pits with the lead and taking fuel only to make sure he was in front on the restart with 34 laps to go at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Johnson staged a brief battle for the lead, but Burton held steady to take the Bank of America 500 and snap a 25-race winless streak.
The victory, his second this season, pushed Burton from fourth to second in points with five races to go to decide the title. He trails Johnson by 69 points.
"We're halfway (through the 10 Chase races). It's a long way and a lot of stuff is going to happen," Burton said. "Everybody wants to give somebody the trophy right now. It's way too early. It's our job to put ourselves in position to give ourselves a chance."
Kasey Kahne, who swept the May races at the track, finished second and was followed by Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch, the pre-Chase points leader, was fourth for his best finish in the Chase. Jamie McMurray was fifth, and Johnson faded over the final few laps to finish sixth.
Greg Biffle was seventh and dropped to third in points, but stayed in striking range, 86 points behind Johnson.
The night was awful for Carl Edwards, who entered second in the standings but had a tough week (see notebook). He lost power in his Ford early and finished 33rd to likely lose his shot at his first Sprint Cup title.
He left fourth in points, 168 behind Johnson.
"It's not good," Edwards said. "I think we're still fourth, though, so there are only three guys in front of us."
Johnson, who was 146 points out after this race in 2006, said he's not ready to call Edwards out of it just yet.
"If us top three guys have problems, they're right back in it," Johnson said. "It's a decent margin, but we're only halfway through it. If we go clean, that's going to be really tough for (Edwards) to overcome. But if we have trouble, he's going to be right back in it."
Jeff Gordon seemed poised to end his yearlong winless streak, leading several times for 47 laps despite two hard bounces off the wall very early. He had to pit 10 laps into the race to change tires after those hits, but made his way back to the front.
But he gave up the lead for an off-sequence pit stop and never made it back to the front, coming in eighth.
"I'm so bummed I got in the wall early," said Gordon, who has not won since this race last year. "We had to come back from that and lead this race. …We just got the best thing we could out of it there at the end and I'm very happy."
Johnson was not.
"We were junk at the end," he said. "I tried to get up there. Took a lot of risks tonight, tried to get as many points as I could. Tried to hang with (Burton) and get by him, damn near threw it away a couple of times."