Polesitter Brian Vickers ran out of gas at the end of Sunday's Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway but, unlike some of his rivals, the Red Bull Toyota driver succumbed on the way to victory lane.
Jimmie Johnson wasn't so lucky. Despite a concerted effort to save gas, Johnson ran out of fuel with just over two laps left in the race and, when he ducked onto pit-road, he handed the lead to Vickers, who had been riding in Johnson's wake. Vickers' win was the second of his career, the first for Red Bull Racing and the first for Toyota at Michigan.
“That's what I'm talking about!” Vickers exulted after crossing the finish line ahead of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Great call, guys. Great job.”
Vickers, Johnson and Gordon last came to the pits on lap 149, while Earnhardt, on the other hand, stopped under caution on lap 159 and rocketed toward the front after a restart on lap 162. Vickers pressured Johnson over the closing laps, before the Lowe's Chevrolet, which had led 133 of 200 laps, ran out of fuel less than five miles short of the finish for the second time this year at the two-mile speedway.
With Vickers just outside the top twelve in the standings, with just three races to go before the cut is made for the Chase, crew chief Ryan Pemberton's call to keep him on the track in fuel conservation mode was a risky one. In this case, however, the risk paid an enormous reward, moving Vickers to 13th in the standings, just twelve points behind Mark Martin, who lost his fuel-mileage gamble by running out of gas on the final lap and finishing 31st.
“I've got to say that, at the moment, it wasn't what I expected him to do, knowing where we're at in the Chase, but it was the right call,” Vickers said of his crew chief's decision, “But the minute he made it, I had complete faith in it. He hasn't run me out of fuel yet.
“Usually, when he tells me that we're going to be two laps short, if I get him two, we're good. If he tells me we're four short, and I get him four, we're good. I have complete confidence in that, and that takes time to build. We've gone through this fuel thing I don't know how many times for me to prove to him what I can save and for him to prove to me how good he is with his math. We've hit our mark every time. I didn't suspect it would be any different this time, but I've got to tell you, when you're coming to two-to-go, I'm still sweating bullets.”
Despite his third-place run, Earnhardt sounded a cautionary note.
“Well, I don't want to get too excited,” he said, having last won a Cup race, at Michigan, in June 2008, “You want to be up front every week like this. You want to be there the whole race. You don't want to just come up there through the last 50 laps and surprise everybody. But we're getting better as a team. It's just really, really hard to be patient and be mindful and respectful of everybody and hold your tongue every once in a while.
“But we're working really hard - I've never worked so hard to run third. I've won races working a whole lot easier than this. But it's competitive with this car, and there's not really a real edge for anyone right now.”
Gordon, meanwhile, saved fuel by turning the engine off and on as he circled the track.
“I really felt confident we were going to make it, even though [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] told me we were four [laps] short when we left pit-road that last pit-stop,” he said after passing Johnson - who finished 33rd - for second in the standings, “I shut the engine off so much. I felt like I got us six laps - at least, with the caution, I felt like I did. I felt pretty confident I didn't have to conserve a whole lot. Junior was pressuring me a lot at the end and I was waiting to see if the #48 and #83 ran out. One did, one didn't.”
Carl Edwards, Sam Hornish Jr, Casey Mears, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top ten on a day when points leader Tony Stewart finished 17th. Chase hopeful Juan Montoya's recent run came unstuck with 19th and Kyle Busch finished only 23rd, dropping to 15th in the standings, now 70 points behind twelfth-placed Martin. Montoya lost a lap while his crew repaired a cut tyre resulting from contact with Kasey Kahne's Dodge, but got it back under NASCAR's 'lucky dog' rule and salvaged a finish which kept him seventh in the Cup standings, 108 points ahead of Vickers.
by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service