BROOKLYN, Mich. — Reaching the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship is as much about calculus as carburetors, with so many race teams playing risk/reward hunches rather than going for victories.
Brian Vickers and his Red Bull Toyota crew broke the template Sunday, burning every drop of fuel to take the Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
To appreciate Vickers' feat you must understand the stakes: Had he run out of gas that last lap, the way Jimmie Johnson did two laps earlier, Vickers likely would have squandered any chance of making the Chase field. But it had been 87 starts since Vickers last won a Cup race, so it was time to make a statement.
"Sometimes you put a stake in the ground," crew chief Ryan Pemberton said. "Either we were completely out of the Chase or we'd win the race."
They made it, with less than half a gallon to spare, holding off Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish completed the top five.
This was never a matter of outrunning Gordon — Vickers had more than enough lead entering the last lap — it was about finishing at all.
"Honestly, I don't remember looking at the racetrack the last two laps," Vickers recalled. "I drove the last two laps entirely looking at the fuel gauge."
The wide track at Michigan breeds fuel-mileage gambles. Johnson and Mark Martin, who probably had the field's strongest cars, both ran out of gas, slipping to 33rd and 31st, respectively. They dominated the race over the first 100 laps.
Afterward, Johnson said he's done flirting with empty gas tanks. "We've won one race on fuel mileage, ever. It is just not what we're good at," said Johnson, who was also in the lead at Michigan in June when he ran out, handing a win to Martin. "I mean, I was running half-throttle for 80-90 percent of that run. I don't know how else I could have saved any (fuel)."
Johnson is still a safe bet to make the Chase, in third behind leader Tony Stewart, who clinched his spot just by starting Sunday, and Gordon.
Vickers is now in 13th, one spot out of the Chase and 12 points behind Martin with three races to go.
Vickers' late strategy involved alternately racing Johnson hard and drafting off him to conserve fuel.
"I wasn't racing (Johnson) as much as maybe it looked like on TV," Vickers said. "More than anything, I was trying to use him to help us …
"We needed X amount of laps (on the remaining fuel), and I knew this is what I needed to do. It really was irrelevant what Jimmie did. He passed us, I let him go, and continued to do my thing … if anything, being right behind him (drafting) was a benefit to us."
Vickers won the poles for both the Cup race and Saturday's Nationwide race. He finished second Saturday and had a shouting match with Kyle Busch afterward; Busch felt he was driving too aggressively.
So Vickers took one last shot at Busch. "Some people in life are just going to do stupid things," he said. "In a lot of ways, I feel bad for Kyle that he lives this angry."
While many contenders made stops with 51 laps to go, seemingly just outside the window they'd need to make it to the end, Earnhardt waited and pitted with 42 laps to go. The strategy allowed him to drive all-out, charging from sixth to third in the final 20 laps.
"I don't want to get too excited," Earnhardt said. "You want to be up front every week like this."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.