Vickers gives Toyota first win at MIS

Published 7:44 pm Sunday, August 16, 2009

BROOKLYN — Polesitter Brian Vickers ran out of gas at the end of Sunday’s Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway. It’s a good thing it was on the way to Victory Lane.

Jimmie Johnson wasn’t so lucky. Despite a concerted effort to save gas, the reigning and three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Johnson ran out of fuel with just over two laps left in the race. When Johnson ducked onto pit road, he handed the lead to Vickers, who had been riding in Johnson’s wake.

“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’ win was the second of his career, the first for Red Bull Racing and the first for Toyota at Michigan.

Vickers, Johnson and Gordon last came to the pits on Lap 149. 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, and Johnson, who led 165 of 200 laps, ran out of fuel less than five miles short of the finish for the second time this year at the 2-mile speedway.

With Vickers just outside the top 12 in the standings — with the top 12 drivers after 26 races qualifying for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — crew chief Ryan Pemberton’s call to keep Vickers 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, 12 points behind 12th-place Mark Martin, who lost his fuel-mileage gamble, 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 (Pemberton) to do, knowing where we’re at in the Chase — but it was the right call,” Vickers said. “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,” said Earnhardt, who won his last NASCAR Sprint 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 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,” said Gordon, who passed Johnson (33rd Sunday) 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. Felt pretty confident I didn’t have to conserve a whole lot. Junior was pressuring me a lot at the end. I was waiting, to see if the 48 (Johnson) and 83 (Vickers) ran out. One did, one didn’t.”

Notes: Kyle Busch finished 23rd and dropped to 15th in the standings, 70 points behind Martin. … Juan Pablo Montoya lost a lap while his crew repaired a cut tire resulting from contact with Kasey Kahne’s Dodge. Montoya got his lap back under NASCAR’s “lucky dog” rule and salvaged a 19th-place finish, which kept him seventh in the Cup standings, 108 points ahead of Vickers.