BROOKLYN, Mich. --- Brian Vickers' entire season came down to a difficult split-second decision Sunday: stop for gas in the closing laps of the Carfax 400 or take a gamble to finish on fumes.
At stake was the opportunity to qualify for the Chase for the Championship and the rare chance to win a race. If he ran out, his playoff hopes were done.
Vickers took the gamble. And won.
"We put the stake in the ground and said we're either out of it (Chase contention) or we're going to win the race," said crew chief Ryan Pemberton. "It was all or nothing."
Vickers inherited the lead with two laps to go at Michigan International Speedway when race leader Jimmie Johnson ran out. Both stopped with 51 laps to go, but Vickers saved enough by running behind Johnson to make it to the finish. His Toyota ran out of gas and stopped 50 feet short of Victory Lane.
The race was more than Vickers could have hoped. He was 14th in the standings before the race; now he's 13th. More important, he's just 12 points -- less than three positions on the racetrack -- from 12th-place Mark Martin, whose playoff chances plummeted in the final two laps when his Chevrolet ran out of gas to finish 31st.
"When I came to two (laps) to go, I was sweating bullets," Vickers said. "There was a sick feeling in my stomach. I felt confident I saved enough, but it's hard not to worry about it. I raced Jimmie there trying to get in the clean air, but I finally let him go. I ran behind him so I could draft him and save fuel and maybe push him a little bit.
"Hopefully we can get in the Chase and run for a championship. If we missed the Chase, I'm going to be very, very disappointed. We've won six poles and a race, and hopefully we'll win more. This was a big relief."
When Vickers left pit road with 51 laps to go, Pemberton told him he was two laps short of having enough gas. Vickers coasted in the turns and he settled behind Johnson's aerodynamic wake to save even more gas. When Pemberton called him on the radio to remind him to take it easy with 30 laps to go, Vickers finally told his team to not talk to him.
"That's when I realized he knew what he was doing," Pemberton said.
Jeff Gordon also stretched his final tank to 51 laps to finish second. Since he also couldn't afford to be wasteful, he didn't make any charge at the leader and was 125 yards behind at the finish line.
"I really thought the 83 (Vickers) would run out after the 48 (Johnson) ran out," Gordon said. "I really thought we were going to win the race."
Johnson led 146 laps in June at Michigan and ran out of gas with three laps to go. He led 133 of 200 laps on Sunday.
"We've won one race on fuel mileage ever, it is just not what we're good at," Johnson said after finishing 33rd. "I think it is a little to risky for us to even try it. I was running half-throttle for 80 to 90 percent of that run. I don't know how else I could have saved any more."
Positions 10-through-15 in the standings now are separated by 100 points with the top 12 advancing into the Chase after three more races.
Vickers needed a knockout just to get into contention, and he got that Sunday. Now that he's close to making the cut, he won't change his approach.
"Most importantly what we need to do is change nothing," he said. "We've got to continue to perform the same way we have the past five weeks, and the Chase will take care of itself. If we push ourselves too hard, we can make mistakes. We need to stay calm and continue to do the exact same thing we've been doing and the Chase is in sight.
"One thing I've learned in this business is there's a lot you can control. Sometimes there's even more you can't. We just need to remain focused on what we can control. We need to do our part."
Which sometimes means gambling the success of an entire season on a few drops of gasoline.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
1. Brian Vickers Toyota
2. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet
4. Carl Edwards Ford
5. Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge
6. Casey Mears Chevrolet
7. Joey Logano Toyota
8. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet
9. David Reutimann Toyota
10. Denny Hamlin Toyota
WHAT: Sharpie 500
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Bristol Motor Speedway
PREVIOUS WINNER: Carl Edwards
Brian Vickers: Sunday's winner gambled that he had enough gas after race leader Jimmie Johnson ran out with two laps left.