Fuel Gamble Pays Big for Mears, Dale Jr. Eighth Bud Team Leads in Final 10 Laps, But Stop For Fuel Means Eighth-Place Finish Casey Mears won his first Nextel Cup race Sunday night, taking the victory in the longest race of the season, the ...
Fuel Gamble Pays Big for Mears, Dale Jr. Eighth
Bud Team Leads in Final 10 Laps, But Stop For Fuel Means Eighth-Place Finish
Casey Mears won his first Nextel Cup race Sunday night, taking the victory in the longest race of the season, the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Mears had a fast car for most of the event, but a gamble on fuel mileage was the difference as race leaders such as Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made pit stops for fuel with less than eight laps remaining while Mears stayed on the track. Also gambling on fuel, JJ Yeley finished second while Kyle Petty was third. Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team, racing with a special desert camo paint scheme in honor of American forces around the world, were one of the dominant cars for much of the 600-miles, but were forced to pit while leading on lap 394 (of 400). The late stop for fuel dropped them to an eighth-place finish, after they had fought back from a punctured left rear tire and fallen to 27th place, one lap behind the leaders midway through the marathon race. This is Dale Jr's third career top-10 tally in NASCAR's longest race.
Dale Jr., starting a season-best 4th place, would stay among the top-five positions for nearly the entire 600-mile distance Sunday evening at Lowe's Motor Speedway, dropping out of the top-ten only for pit stops and when the Budweiser machine - in a camouflage paint scheme rather than the usual red rocket - suffered a punctured left rear tire on lap 148. After stopping to replace the tires, Dale Jr. found himself in 27th place, one lap behind the leaders. However, using a deft combination of a fast car, lightning pit work and good timing with several additional yellow flags, the team found themselves on the lead lap again by lap 187. Less than 50 laps later, a 12.25-second pit stop earned the team five positions on pit lane, and they were again back in the top-five. Despite running in the top-five for nearly the entire distance, it was only on lap 393 of 400 that the Bud car took the race lead when leader Tony Stewart stopped for a splash of fuel. The next lap, the No. 8 team followed suit, pitting for less than two seconds of service, but dropping to eighth place. Expecting the rest of those in front of them to also stop or run dry, the Bud team watched with resignation as the laps wound down and they remained eighth. It is the fifth top-10 finish of the season for the Budweiser team.
Dale Jr. Quotes:
(alternately amused and disappointed) "I thought we finished second to Tony (Stewart)! Nobody told me we were eighth. I thought everyone else had to stop for fuel and we cycled back into second place. When you look at the cars that finished ahead of us, almost all of them had nothing to lose by gambling. We need the strong finish for the points, so we couldn't gamble on fuel like those guys did. They had nothing to lose. But it's hard to be mad when we had such a great car and a great night overall. My team built me a damn-fast race car, they had their best night ever on pit stops (see details and notes below) and we were easily a top-three or a top-five car all night. I am proud-as-hell of these guys. (Suspended crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. will be proud of us, and (interim crew chief) Tony Gibson did a great job all weekend. It's cool to run up front here in front of my family and friends and my employees at JR Motorsports. A bunch of 'em were up in a suite watching, though I'm not sure how many made it past 300 miles. (laughs) I know I couldn't watch that long."
"We almost won the 600... and that makes me proud. What a car tonight. The motor was really strong and it handled well all night. We were good from the start, but I didn't think we had a chance to win until about 50 laps to go when we started to run the high line and we passed Matt (Kenseth) and Casey (Mears) and were catching Tony (Stewart, who was leading). I thought we had a chance then. I guess that's the way our luck has gone: you race 600 miles and it comes down to a few splashes of fuel. It's a positive night for us though. That's the type of run we needed, and I have to say I didn't think we'd be that good - so the full credit goes to the crew. We didn't panic when we had the flat tire. We knew there were a lot of laps left and we had a fast, fast car."
About interim crew chief Tony Gibson: "He's the perfect guy to step in for six races (the length of suspension for crew chief Tony Eury Jr.). Gibson's been with us awhile - he knows the guys, he knows me and he has the right temperament to step-in to a tough job. He did great on the adjustments tonight and he just seems to know the temperature of any given situation and makes good choices. He communicated real well with me on the radio. He was giving me lap times a lot - but sometimes that's too much. I'm out there driving as fast as I can every lap, so it's too late to make a difference if he's calling out lap times. But, he did well. He's a good person and he's perfect to fill-in."
Best Radio Chatter:
The usual heated banter between cousins Dale Jr. and Tony Jr. was missing with Eury's suspension, but there were several interesting exchanges on the radio during the 600 miles.
Dale Jr: (looking far ahead to the end of the race during an early yellow-flag period on lap 78): "Let's try to be at the front at the end. Let's pit as soon as we know we can make it to the finish because with these hard tires, it doesn't matter who you are. Whoever you are, if you're in front, no one will get by you. If we're leading, we'll have a good shot."
Running third on lap 148, Dale Jr. suddenly slowed.
Dale Jr: "I think I have a tire going flat."
Tony Gibson (crew chief): "All right. Come on in. Guys get ready: four tires."
(after the pit stop)
Gibson: "Hey Old Man (Gibson's nickname for Dale Jr., and nearly everyone else), you were right, You had a puncture on the the left rear tire."
Dale Jr: "OK, we're only one lap down here, right?"
Steve Hmiel (spotter) "Yes, one lap down."
Gibson: "We've got plenty of time left. We're OK, it's only lap 156."
Dale Jr: "Oh yeah, I'm OK."
As the race neared an end, the racing became more serious, and Dale Jr. made several dramatic passes - first on Matt Kenseth, then Jimmie Johnson before a yellow flag fell.
Dale Jr: (total deadpan): "I do believe you have improved the grip on my car."
Hmiel: (giving the correct order at the time of the caution flag- prompting the huge crowd to begin booing) "The 48, then the 8..."
Dale Jr: "Are you SURE?"
Hmiel: "Yeah, that's what NASCAR is sayin..."
Dale Jr: "DAMN! I wanna a cold beer! A cold Bud will taste good after this."
Hmiel: "Hopefully you'll be wearing one in Victory Lane."
Dale Jr: "Yeah. I'll need a cold Bud."
Gibson: "I think we can get you one. We can get it handled."
(***The Budweiser pit crew made seven four-tire stops during the 600-mile event. All were quicker than 13.31 seconds, and five of the stops were quicker than 12.53 seconds.)