Joey Logano was the first leader to fade, his tank empty with three laps left.
Martin Truex Jr. struck E with two laps to go.
Kyle Busch knew his Toyota was about out, too, his shot at a fourth straight win tapped out on the last lap.
One by one, fuel woes cost the contenders. But the pain at the pump for drivers pushing toward the finish line was the break Matt Kenseth needed to coast past them all in the final thrilling laps Sunday to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway.
The 400-mile race came down to fuel and which cars had it - and which ones didn't.
"I couldn't catch them anyway but I just wanted to get as close as I could in case they ran out," Kenseth said.
Once they ran out, Kenseth not only had enough left in the tank to win, he pulled off a celebratory burnout.
Kenseth's win continued the sensational summer run for Joe Gibbs Racing, making it five wins in the last six races. Busch, who had the other victories, failed in his bid to become the ninth driver since 1972 and the first since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win four straight Cup races.
Busch had won three straight Cup races and four of five, swept the Xfinity and Cup races last weekend at Indianapolis and won the Truck Series event Saturday at Pocono. Busch remained outside the top 30 in points, the second marker he needs to hit to qualify for the Chase.
"I wish I had saved a little more," Busch said. "I wish I had known (Logano) was that far from making it. It's a shame we couldn't get it done."
With a win, Busch would have had the points needed to at least crack the top 30, though he'd have to stay there for the final five races before the 16-driver field is set for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
"We got greedy," Busch said. "But that's the position we're in."
Truex was 19th, Logano 20th, and Busch 21st.
"I was saving fuel just to cushion it," Logano said. "I thought I was going to be good and then I started running out and knew we weren't going to make it. We were so close. You are counting down the laps in your head thinking you are going to make it but just didn't do it. "
Brad Keselowski was second, followed by Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.
Kenseth had the only position that mattered, winning for the second time this season and for the first time ever at Pocono.
"I never thought I'd win at Pocono," he said.
Kenseth won the fuel gamble and survived a race that resembled a demolition derby: Cars, crews, walls, equipment, all took beatings over 400 miles.
Kasey Kahne kicked off a race stuffed with carnage when his No. 5 got loose, found the opening to pit road and slammed the inside pit road wall. Kahne's hit buckled the wall, sent helmets flying and crew members scurrying for safety.
"I saw the people and I thought to myself that those guys need to take off running and get out of the way," Kahne said.
The race was red-flagged for about 15 minutes while the wall was repaired. No one was hurt.
Pit road proved a dangerous place.
Keselowski slid through his pit stall and took out three members of his crew. His tire changer and tire carrier both jumped on the hood and the team jackman was clipped by the left side of No. 2 Ford. One tire got free and rolled down pit road before it came to a dead stop.
"If we could have, quite honestly, not had that issue during the race, I feel like we probably would have won today," Keselowski said. "That one is on me, so I feel really guilty for my team on that."
Kevin Harvick's No. 4 suffered engine failure only 20 laps into the race. Ricky Stenhouse's No. 17 was a crumpled mess after he slammed into Sam Hornish Jr. Kurt Busch spun, tried to save his car and was plowed into by Hornish. Trevor Bayne was knocked out of the race when a pipe went through his radiator. There were seven cautions in the first 70 laps.
The cautions slowed - or stopped - the race to such a crawl that it took an hour to complete the first 30 laps on the 2 1/2-mile track.
Gordon's farewell to Pocono has him the track's career leader in wins with six and laps led. He had his 32nd top-10 finish in 46 races at the track.
He's still looking for the elusive win that will clinch a Chase berth instead of hoping he can make the field on points.
"We're not in a safe position," Gordon said.