A gas, gas, gas!
Tony Stewart has just enough. Jimmie Johnson gives his car too much.
By BRANT JAMES
Published October 2, 2006
KANSAS CITY, Kan. - Tony Stewart and Casey Mears were at liberty to gamble - and it all worked out.
Jimmie Johnson was inclined to be conservative - and it all went to hell anyway.
Stewart, the defending series champion who failed to qualify for the Chase for the Championship, stretched his fuel mileage beyond its limits in the final laps of the Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, finishing on empty as Mears, another nonqualifier, coasted in 12.422 seconds behind him.
Johnson, a perennial championship contender who entered the third Chase race eighth in points, gave up the lead to pit in the final laps but was penalized for speeding off pit road with three laps left.
That relegated him to a 14th-place finish and major points hit. Johnson remained in eighth place but fell 165 points behind points leader Jeff Burton. Rookie Denny Hamlin moved into second place - a two-spot gain - after salvaging an 18th-place finish.
Johnson, who led a race-high five times for 105 laps, tried to pit with four laps remaining but veered back onto the track and had to make a slow lap around because Kasey Kahne's spun-out car was sitting astride pit road.
Mark Martin was third as the highest-finishing Chase qualifier followed by Dale Jarrett and Burton.
A record 11 cautions and dozens of different pit strategies spread the field in the final laps to allow Stewart - who did not pit late - to conserve fuel at slow speeds and coast the last mile to the finish line without a challenge.
"My job for the most part was over at that point," said Stewart, who won for the third time this season. "I finished my day."
Stewart admitted it was not a gamble he would have made if he was contending for the championship.
"Tony is definitely good at fuel mileage. When a guy like that runs out, you know you're probably pretty close," said Mears, who earned just his second top-five finish since a runnerup result in the Daytona 500. "Obviously a second-place finish for this team is about like a win, especially after the streak of races we've had lately."
Johnson was confident his lead - in excess of four seconds - would be sufficient to hold off even those cars that did not pit in the final laps. That made the penalty all the more galling.
"We had such a big lead over the guys running in second and third and all that, so I wouldn't get beat by them," he said. "So I wasn't in a hurry to get on pit road. I just wanted to get on and off and get back into the race, and evidently I got a speeding violation."
Winning on fuel mileage wasn't as fulfilling as a mad three-wide dash to the finish, but Stewart is in the business to take a victory in any form. He had been critical of that style of racing three years ago, however, when Ryan Newman became a master of coasting home as the rest of the field gasped for vapors.
"I wasn't the fastest car. It wasn't the car performance that deserved to win the race," he said. "We won on strategy. That's a credit to (crew chief Greg Zipadelli). That's not a credit to me."
Johnson's predicament demonstrated that even racing conservatively might not be the formula for winning the Nextel Cup championship. At least for him. Burton, running second at the time, pitted with nine laps left and recouped for a fifth-place finish to expand his points lead to 69. A winner last weekend in Dover, Burton has the luxury of being careful.
Several other prime contenders no longer have that option.
Matt Kenseth, who started the day third in points, had a frustrating race. He developed problems with his right rear suspension, prompting him to pit twice under a caution then sending him sliding through the grass 14 laps later when he lost control of the No. 17 Ford coming out of Turn 4. He finished 23rd and fell to fourth in points.
Jeff Gordon, who entered the race second in points, just five behind, sustained a fuel pump failure as he ran eighth with 31 laps left to finish 39th and fall four spots to sixth.
Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet slowed to a crawl before former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte pushed him back around to his pit. Crew chief Steve Letarte sent him on his way after a quick check under the hood and a gas service. But the car expired again on pit road, was pushed back behind the wall by two other teams' crews and retired.
"I'm upset," Gordon said. "I want to know what happened, and I want to get out of here."
Make sure the car has plenty of gas first.