0

NASCAR SUNDAY: Vickers outlasts Johnson in fuel duel at Michigan

BROOKLYN, Mich. - After winning three straight championships, Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have proved themselves masters of many things in NASCAR.

Winning races on fuel mileage isn't one of them.

Twice in just over two months, Johnson's team has gambled on gas in an attempt to win at Michigan International Speedway - and both backfired. Johnson handed a win to Mark Martin in June, and Brian Vickers benefited from Johnson's fuel follies on Sunday.

"Certainly frustrated," Johnson said. "We've won one race on fuel mileage ever. It's just what we're not good at. I think it's a little too risky for us to even try it."

Although Johnson wasn't happy after leading 279 of 400 possible laps in two Michigan races and not even finishing in the top 20 either time, Sunday's gamble didn't cost him much. He is third in the points and in good shape for NASCAR's championship chase.

And don't expect the No. 48 team to make similar gambles in the final 10 races.

"Whenever we try to stretch it, it just never works," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "And we've run out more times than not when we were trying to make it. In the chase we wouldn't take a chance like this. We have luxury to do it right now."

Rolling the dice on fuel mileage was perhaps a more surprising gamble for Vickers, given his small margin for error. Had he run out of gas Sunday, it likely would have blown any shot at making the chase.

But Vickers and crew chief Ryan Pemberton have a better fuel mileage track record than Johnson and Knaus, and proved it again Sunday.

"At the moment it wasn't what I expected (Pemberton) to do just because knowing where we're at in the chase, that is the situation," Vickers said. "But it was the right call. The minute he made it, I had complete faith in it. He hasn't run me out of fuel yet."

After driving gently to conserve fuel in the closing laps, Vickers pounced when Johnson's tank ran dry, taking the lead with two laps to go and holding on to win.

Vickers won his second career race, boosted his chances of making the chase and delivered the first checkered flag for Red Bull Racing.

Jeff Gordon finished second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish Jr. Series points leader Tony Stewart, who clinched his spot in the chase by starting Sunday's race, finished 17th.

With three races left before the cutoff for NASCAR's season-ending championship chase, the win provided a significant boost to Vickers' chances of qualifying. Vickers jumped one spot in the standings to 13th, and is only 12 points behind Martin for the 12th and final qualifying spot.

It also was the continuation of a wild weekend for Vickers, who won the pole on Friday and then spent Saturday sparring with Kyle Busch.

Vickers and Busch both are trying to climb into the top 12 in Sprint Cup points to qualify for the chase, and their rivalry ratcheted up during Saturday's Nationwide race when they raced for the lead on the final lap and both were passed for the win by Brad Keselowski.

They exchanged words afterward, a confrontation Vickers called "ridiculous" and "unnecessary" Sunday night.

"I feel sorry for Kyle, that he lives that angry about something so small," Vickers said.

Vickers certainly got the best of Busch on Sunday, watching his rival come home 23rd. Busch slipped two spots to 15th in the standings.

And as if that wasn't enough drama, Vickers still isn't sure if he's returning to drive for his team next season.

"We have every intention of getting this done (quickly)," team general manager Jay Frye said.

Johnson, Vickers and several other contenders made pit stops with 51 laps to go, seemingly just outside the window they'd need to make it to the end.

Earnhardt then pitted with 42 laps to go, while other leaders such as Johnson, Vickers, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick did not. The strategy call by Earnhardt's crew allowed him to drive all-out to go for the win while others had to drive conservatively in an attempt to save gas.

Earnhardt charged from sixth to third in the final 20 laps, but couldn't quite catch the leaders. Still, it was his best finish since coming in second place at Talladega in April.

"I don't want to get too excited," Earnhardt said. "You want to be up front every week like this. You want to be up there the whole race."