Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: When Running 3rd Was a Charm

The large majority of us have heard the phrase, “Third time’s a charm.”

The same can be said for NASCAR at times, as there have been many moments where being in third place put a driver in the catbird seat.

The latest example is the freshest to our memory, as a dropped cylinder by Christopher Bell and an apparent fuel miscalculation by Ryan Blaney‘s team handed the win to Austin Cindric at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

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Cindric’s second career win and playoff-twisting triumph capped off a race dictated by strategy and a lot of unknowns. But even when we appeared to have a clear winner, there was no warning that Blaney’s fuel tank would run dry.

In NASCAR’s history, there have been dozens of times across all three series when the third-place driver in the closing laps ended up in victory lane.

For the sake of limitation, we are only going to look at a couple of instances from the NASCAR Cup Series in which the top two drivers had fuel or mechanical issues, leading to a third-place spoiler.

1979 Daytona 500

As an exception to the guidelines above, we can’t talk about a third-place car taking advantage of the leaders’ issues without revisiting perhaps NASCAR’s most important race.

With millions of people snowed in from a massive blizzard along the East Coast, the first flag-to-flag television coverage of the Daytona 500 was one of their only choices to tune into. My, my, how that worked out.

The race was coming down to Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. On the final lap, Yarborough made a move to the inside of Allison, prompting Allison to attempt a block. Yarborough got into the grass, slid into Allison, and both drivers eventually hit the wall before coming to rest in the infield at the entry of turn 3.

Who took advantage of the wreck? None other than six-time champion Richard Petty (he won his seventh that year), who held off Darrell Waltrip to win the race.

But what still headlines this race was the iconic call by the late, great broadcaster Ken Squier, with echoes of, “And there’s a fight,” still ringing as Allison and Yarborough exchanged blows.

2009 LifeLock 400

When Cindric took the checkered flag on Sunday, this was the race that came to several peoples’ minds in how it went down.

In the midst of a three-time title defense campaign, Jimmie Johnson looked poised to snatch another trophy, this time at Michigan International Speedway. Johnson had led 146 laps on the day, 104 laps more than the next closest driver, Greg Biffle.

However, a pit stop with just under 50 laps to go saw Biffle win the race off pit road while Johnson fell to third. That allowed Biffle to lead several laps and try to sneak out the win, but Johnson wasn’t done. He stormed back to the lead with six laps left and had the checkered flag in sight.

The issue was the fact that the drivers had to go 45 laps on fuel, which was right on the edge of the fuel window. Both Johnson’s and Biffle’s crew chiefs tried to walk the line of saving fuel while pushing the other to run out.

Just like Blaney this past Sunday, the white flag was in the air when Johnson’s car began to sputter. That allowed Biffle to fly by, just needing one lap to secure the win. Yet, Biffle only made it two turns before he also slowed and ran out of fuel.

Scooting by and taking the win was 50-year-old Mark Martin, who entered the race 13th in points and just outside the Chase (now the playoffs).

2011 Coca-Cola 600

NASCAR’s longest race has taken on a lot of themes over the years. It has been a race to see whose engine lasts the longest, who survives all the crashes or which driver physically outlasts his competitors.

At times, it has come down to who has enough fumes to cross the start/finish line first. Such was the case in the 2011 crown jewel event.

In a race that saw 19 different leaders exchange the top spot 38 times, it all came down to a green-white-checkered restart. Kasey Kahne led the field to the restart with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his inside. But before they even made it to the start/finish line, Kahne’s No. 4 Toyota ran out of gas, stacking the field up.

Breaking away from the field was Earnhardt, with Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick trying to run him down. With every fan standing up and Junior Nation going hysterical, it looked as though Earnhardt would snap what was nearly a two-year winless drought.

As FOX Sports broadcaster Mike Joy prepared to make the call, Waltrip shouted, “Uh-oh, he’s slowing, isn’t he?”

Sure enough, Earnhardt was out, and so was Hamlin. That allowed Harvick to earn his nickname, “The Closer” and steal one for his first 600 victory.

2015 Windows 10 400

Pocono Raceway is no stranger to fuel mileage races. At 2.5-miles long, running out of fuel is a death sentence there with nowhere to hide. And with races there typically being 160 laps, strategy has played a large role numerous times.

In the 2015 Windows 10 400, Joey Logano was undoubtedly the dominant car. He had led 97 laps and seemed like a lock to capture the checkered flag.

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As the laps wound down, both Logano and second-place driver Kyle Busch were told to save fuel, sparking a round of chess to make it to the end. With three laps to go, Logano’s car began to shake more than Elvis Presley as he tried to squeeze out more fuel. Despite his attempt, Logano was out, and Busch scooted to the lead.

After missing 11 races due to a broken leg and foot, it looked as if Busch would continue to surge in his revenge tour. Yet, as he took the white flag, his car began to slow.

Busch still had a sizable lead, with Matt Kenseth sitting 16 seconds behind. However, Busch’s fuel tank was as dry as the Sahara Desert, and that gap quickly evaporated. Kenseth overtook his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and scored his first and only victory at Pocono, a track he said he thought he would never win at.

There are several other races where being in third was the right place to be. Before WWTR, Blaney had been on both sides of the stick. He won the inaugural Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL race after Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. spun in the final chicane. Blaney was also taken out by Chase Elliott in the final chicane of the 2021 Clash at the Daytona International Speedway road course that saw Busch win.

There have also been bizarre moments like the 2022 Pocono race where Hamlin and Busch were both disqualified post-race, handing the win to the third-place finisher Elliott. Or how about the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Race in 2022, when a failed slide job by Chase Briscoe on Tyler Reddick had the win fall into Busch’s lap?

Each of those examples prove that if a driver puts themselves in the right position, you never know what might just happen in the final laps.

About the author


Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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Ron Bouchard 1981 Talladega


Buddy Baker told him how to win! “Run third on the last lap and don’t make your move until the tri-oval. When the second place car makes his move do the opposite. If he goes high you go low and go.” Real race cars in a real race!

I was at Oswego when the announcer said Ron won. He was really good in the Modifieds

Last edited 15 days ago by DoninAjax
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