BROOKLYN, Mich. - Jeremy Mayfield had enough fuel to out-fox the leaders and win yesterday's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
And he had enough fuel to spin a few doughnuts in front of the main grandstand area after the race, and then tear up the infield grass with more spins and burnouts.
But in a stark departure from standard Nextel Cup celebratory procedure, Mayfield had to walk the last couple of hundred yards to Victory Lane, and then have his car towed there.
For good reason - the car was out of gasoline.
"We had the fuel to win the race, and even enough to do a victory lap and a little celebrating," said Mayfield, who engaged in an impromptu scrum with his jubilant team after his car bogged down in the infield turf. "But that was it. We cut it close, but it was a gamble we had to take."
With 20 laps to go in the race, it became a liar's poker game played by crew chiefs and drivers, with everyone expecting to need additional fuel to finish the race. Carl Edwards had the lead, with Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle all pushing for the front.
Kenseth went to the pits first, followed by Biffle, then Stewart, and Johnson. Edwards ducked in with 10 laps to go, and Mayfield, who had been 19th when the final act started to play out, rolled the dice on having enough gas to finish the race.
"I kind of figured it was gonna be close," said Mayfield, who went ahead with six laps to go. "When they told me all the leaders were pitting, I knew we were going to stay out and go for the win. We were willing to gamble and go for it."
Mayfield, who earned his sixth top 10 of the season and strengthened his position to sixth in the Nextel Cup points race, was joined in the late dash venture by Scott Riggs. Riggs, who was running in 23rd position with 20 laps to go, finished second. Several other teams that made the fuel gamble lost and ran out before taking the checkered flag.
"There were only a few teams that elected to take that chance," Mayfield said. "My team, they stuck their butts out on the line. If we had run out, we would have lost a lot of points and really hurt our chances."
The decision to remain on the track and test Mayfield's ability to nurse the car home was made by crew chief Slugger Labbe, and supported by team owner Ray Evernham, who said the final fuel stop with 53 laps to go left them on the edge of the fuel window.
"Those guys really did their homework today," Evernham said. "They knew what their fuel mileage was, and they knew how they had to cut down their RPMs to make it last. You don't have to have the fastest car to win. You just have to capitalize on the opportunities. This is the first race I've ever been a part of that we've won on fuel mileage. I've lost a ton of them on it."
Pole-sitter Joe Nemechek surrendered the lead to Kasey Kahne just three laps into the race, regained it on lap 47, then gave it up for good with a blown tire on lap 73. Nemechek fell to 32nd, then battled his way to an eighth-place finish.
Kyle Busch led for 28 laps early in the race, but blew an engine before the midway point after battling overheating problems and finished last. Brother Kurt Busch led the most laps - 65 - but lost the lead for the final time when Kenseth slipped around him on lap 167.
After Edwards surged in front on lap 174, he looked unstoppable until the final pit rotation, and Mayfield's winning ploy.
"To be that close to victory and have it go on pit strategy and everything - I told the guys to keep their heads up," Edwards said. "To be honest with you, I didn't really know what everybody was doing, and I decided I was not gonna think too hard. I just wanted to go as fast as I could go and see what happened."
Kenseth said the winning strategy was only an option for the drivers like Mayfield, well back in the pack at the time the final fuel stops started.
"I think it was the right thing to do for them," Kenseth said. "When you're in the back you can gamble like that, and if those guys don't make it, then we're battling Carl for the win.
"We weren't the fastest car on the track, but we did everything right. When you're running 15th or 20th it's easy to take a gamble and go for it. That would have been silly for us to try that, while we were running second. I've always hated fuel mileage races. I would much rather have the fastest car win - that's the racer in me."
Riggs said his ability to push Mayfield and play for the win was limited by his awareness of his fuel situation.
"We knew he couldn't run too hard or he'd run out of fuel," Mayfield said. "I had to lay off three or four laps in a row to save fuel, but when Riggs started to get close I had to get back on it [the gas]."
Mayfield said that on a recent testing visit to MIS, his crew chief Slugger Labbe had him run out of gasoline several times, trying to collect data on just how far he could push the Dodge Charger until the fuel was spent.
"We ran our car out of gas here two or three times in tests, and I thought they were just trying to make it hard on me cause it was so hot out," Mayfield said.
"We ran it out of gas a few times, and I'm glad we did that. It helped us here. It feels really good when you take a gamble like this, and it all works out. The car was sitting there dead in the infield, and we were just running around tackling each other and going crazy. That's probably the most fun we've had in a long time."42.11068 -84.24795 ERROR: Template storyimage.ldo not found in theme default for section sports!
Jeremy Mayfield had enough fuel to out-fox the leaders and win yesterday's GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway.