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 championship 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 still out 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 snap a 25-race winless streak.
The victory, his second of the season, pushed Burton from fourth to second in the standings with five races to go to decide the title. He trails Johnson by 69 points.
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"We're halfway. A lot of stuff is going to happen," Burton said. "A lot of people want to give somebody the trophy, but it's way too early."
Kasey Kahne, who swept the May races at the track, finished second and was followed by Kurt Busch.
Kyle Busch, the regular-season points winner, was fourth for his best finish since the Chase began five weeks ago. Jamie McMurray was fifth, and Johnson faded over the final few laps to finish sixth.
Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and David Ragan rounded out the top 10.
The night was a disaster for several Chase contenders, including Carl Edwards, who entered the race second in the standings. He lost power in his Ford early and finished 33rd to likely lose his shot at his first Sprint Cup title.
It ended a drama-filled week for Edwards, who caused a 12-car accident last Sunday in Talladega then scuffled with Kevin Harvick in the garage area at Lowe's.
He left fourth in the standings, 168 behind Johnson.
"It is obviously bad for our prospects for the championship," team owner Jack Roush said.
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."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. fared worse than Edwards, finishing 36th after his tire exploded a lap before he planned to head to pit road to have them changed. He's 10th in the standings.
Matt Kenseth was caught in a mid-race accident and finished 41st to drop to 11th in the standings.
Gordon seemed poised to end his yearlong losing streak, leading several times for 47 laps despite two hard bounces off the wall very early in the race. He had to pit just 10 laps into the race to change tires after hitting the wall, but still managed to make his way back to the front.
He gave up the lead for an off-sequence pit stop and never made it back to the front. He took four tires on the final pit stop, which mired him too far back into the field to make a run at the leaders over the final sprint to the finish.
"I'm so bummed I got in the wall early," said Gordon, who has not won since a victory at the track last October. "We had to come back from that and lead this race. I knew we were out of sequence - it's amazing how great the car is out front and how terrible when you get six cars back.
"We just got the best thing we could out of it there at the end and I'm very happy."
Johnson was not.
He thought he had a shot at winning the race, but his late fade had him aggravated after the finish.
"We were junk at the end," he said. "I tried to get up there. Took a lot of risk 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. The last third of the race we got out in left field and couldn't get it back."