Pete Iacobelli

CONCORD, N.C.: At first Dale Earnhardt Jr. was relieved he didn’t fall further back than seventh at last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Then he realized what he had lost for just about a gallon of gas.

“After a while, you start thinking about, ‘Oh, yeah, we really came close to winning a race,’ ” Earnhardt said this week. “It was really unfortunate there wasn’t just a little bit more gas in the car.”

If there were, Earnhardt wouldn’t have faced an additional year’s worth of questions about why he hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race since 2008 at Michigan. The drought has grown to 140 races and is a focal point at every track or appearance by Earnhardt.

“I’ve said it all year long,” he says, “that I think we’re a little bit better than we were last year.”

It looked like Earnhardt was the best at Charlotte Motor Speedway a year ago when he broke free on a late restart to take the lead. He got the white flag just fine, then ran out of gas on the front straightaway and coasted through he final turn before Kevin Harvick passed him for the win.

Harvick said afterward he “felt so stinking bad” for Earnhardt because he knew how much the Hendrick Motorsports driver wanted to win. The fans roared when Earnhardt moved in front and were equally stunned when his tank ran dry.

Earnhardt was grateful to hang on to seventh as he thought about his position in the year-end championship chase. Then the disappointment of what happened swept over him.

“I was really unfortunate there wasn’t just a little bit more gas in the car or whatever to get us to Victory Lane because that would’ve been a great way to cap off a pretty good weekend,” Earnhardt said. “So it was a bit frustrating over time.”

Martin Truex Jr., who hasn’t won since 2007, finished 26th in last year’s race and understood what his fellow driver was going through. It takes so much, Truex said, to get into position that to have it snatched away so close to the finish line is maddening. “Coming off Turn 4 and running out of gas is about the absolute worst way to lose a race,” Truex said. “I definitely felt for him there.”

Earnhardt, who’ll start 12th tonight in Sprint Cup’s longest race, feels he’s in a strong position to contend again. He said he’s been faster at nearly every track he’s gone to this season and doesn’t expect that to change in Charlotte.

Nationwide Series

Brad Keselowski won the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday, leading the final 67 laps to give Penske Racing a winning start on auto racing’s biggest weekend.

Keselowski raced to his first Nationwide victory of the year. He’ll try to double up in Sprint Cup’s longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 tonight.

Keselowski led the way as Sprint Cup drivers took the top four spots. Denny Hamlin was second, followed by Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, last year’s Coca-Cola 600 champion.