By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Fuel mileage seems to come into play more often at Michigan International Speedway than any other track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit and a decade ago, that’s exactly how everything played out on the two-mile speedway in the Irish Hills.
Two months prior to the running of the Carfax 400 in August 2009, a fuel mileage thriller resulted in Mark Martin taking home the checkered flag after Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle fell by the wayside in the closing laps when their fuel tanks ran dry.
It was about to be déjà vu for Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Just as he had done in the June race, Johnson was the dominant car of the day, leading six different times for a total of 133 laps up front, but in the closing stages of the race, fuel mileage came into play after subsequent cautions fell on lap 146 and 159.
Johnson, pole sitter Brian Vickers, who was driving for upstart Red Bull Racing, as well as Jeff Gordon, made their way down pit road on the first of those two cautions, electing to try and stretch their fuel to last the final 51 laps of the race.
On the other hand, there was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who came down pit road 10 laps later and would have more than enough fuel to go the distance.
When the green flag flew for the final time with 39 laps to go, Vickers took off with the lead, but Johnson quickly tracked him down and passed him four laps after the restart. The two then pulled away from the rest of the field and were going to settle it between themselves.
Lap after lap, Johnson stayed out front with Vickers running close behind in his tire tracks, with worries of fuel mileage ever-present in the back of their minds.
With two laps to go, Johnson’s engine sputtered coming off of Turn 4, forcing him to duck onto pit road and hand the lead over to Vickers.
Several car lengths behind him was Gordon, who also had fuel mileage worries of his own, while Earnhardt, Jr. had made his way to third, running some of the fastest laps on the track. If Vickers and Gordon ran out of fuel in those last four miles, the win would be his.
Back out front, Vickers was nursing every drop of fuel he could muster out of his Toyota, trying desperately to make it back around to the checkered flag. In the end, he had just enough to get across the line, scoring the second Cup Series win of his career and delivering Red Bull its first win at NASCAR’s highest level.
Gordon would cross the line in second, with Earnhardt, Jr. coming home in third.
“It’s been a good weekend for us,” Vickers said. “I got to start by thanking obviously Red Bull and Toyota for the patience, perseverance, all the hard work from everybody at the team. It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a long three years. A lot of struggles, a lot of pains. No one gave up. That’s the reason we’re here in Victory Lane.
“Ryan (Pemberton, crew chief) made some great adjustments towards the end. The car came back to us. The last call, to take two, for track position, gamble on fuel.
“I got to say at the moment it wasn’t what I expected him to do just because knowing where we’re at in the Chase, that is the situation. 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. Usually when he tells me we’re going to be two laps short, I get him two, we’re good. If he tells me four, I get him four, we’re good. I had complete confidence in that.
“I got to tell you, when you’re coming to two to go, I’m still sweating bullets no matter how much confidence you got. I know he is. But I know I was. When Jimmie ran out there, I knew at that point we had enough lead on Jeff that all I had to do was get to the finish. But it was definitely a sickening feeling in the bottom of my stomach we could run out at any minute. I felt confident about how much I saved, but, you know, it’s hard not to worry about it.”
As for Johnson, he came home in 33rd place, expressing disappointment over the fact that it was fuel mileage that did him in at Michigan yet again.
“Certainly frustrated, but we’ve won one race on fuel mileage ever and it’s just not what we’re good at,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a little too risky for us to even try it. We got lucky once in Phoenix and outside of that, we always come up short. From inside the car, I did all I could. I was running half-throttle for 80 to 90 percent of that run and I don’t know how else I could have saved any.
“Just the way it goes. We’ve got a lot of power under the hood that takes a lot of fuel. We had a great car. It sucks to have stats here like we do, leading laps, and not go to Victory Lane.”