ATLANTA - You can win a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race while crossing the finish line on your roof. Ask Ken Schrader.
You can win with shredded tires and the hood flapping against the fenders. Ask Jeff Burton.
You can win with an engine that's belching white smoke before it explodes at the checkered flag. Ask Darrell Waltrip.
You can't win, however, without gasoline. Ask anybody.
Race victories come in a variety of ways. Some are lucky; others are the result of flawless strategy, like picking correctly on taking no tires, two tires or four tires on the final pit stop.
Fast cars and perfect strategy, however, are useless when the gas gauge reads "empty."
"You can't make a mistake," said Danny "Chocolate" Myers, a gas man for Robby Gordon's Chevrolet. "You have to make sure you get all the gas in the car that you can. If you spill it or you don't get it full, you can run out. It's happened to all of us, and it's not any fun."
Myers, a burly man with his own fan club, is the most famous gas man in stock-car racing. He hoisted 85-pound gas cans on his shoulder for six of Dale Earnhardt's seven Winston Cup Championships. Myers is at his best when it comes to a fill-up at high speed.
At 4.3 miles a gallon at most speedways it doesn't take long to run out. Despite all the precise calculations and thousands of miles of racing history to rely on, teams still find a way to run out.
While gasoline remains an afterthought most of the time, there's nothing routine about the fuel or the role it plays in every race.
The stuff that fuels stock cars to 195-mph laps around the Atlanta Motor Speedway is a special blend of nearly 100 hydrocarbon components, a splash of lead and absolutely no oxygen compounds, according to Tim Wusz, a products engineer with Union 76. Fuel from a neighborhood gas station won't work in a Winston Cup Series car because it doesn't burn as quickly or efficiently as needed in engines that turn more than 9,000 rpms.
Racing fuel will work in a passenger car, but at $4.50 a gallon, it's not practical. Besides, passenger cars will work just fine on fuel made with more than 400 hydrocarbon and oxygen compounds that don't need to burn as quickly.
Lead is outlawed in passenger cars, but it is allowed in racing.
"Our gas is full of lead," said Danny Lawrence, chief engine builder at Richard Childress Racing. "We can't run our cars on 87 octane or even the premium unleaded gases that the public can buy. We have to have the 110 octane. We need all that lead to lubricate the engine."
The general public can choose its grade of gasoline at the pump, usually ranging from 87 to 93 octane, but racing fuel comes in redish 110 octane. The amount of octane is determined by the amount of hydrocarbons and oxygen compounds, Wusz said.
There are a variety of reasons for running out. A malfunctioning fuel pump or carburetor. Fuel that's trapped in the corner of the gas tank. A simple miscalculation.
Most fuel shortages, however, come at the end of the race. It's when race teams try to skip a pit stop with the hope of having just enough to finish the race.
A driver can conserve gasoline by staying behind other cars. That reduces wind resistance. Or he can lift off the gas pedal earlier than normal heading into the turns and get back on the gas later than planned coming off the corner. And he can pray for caution laps, when speeds are reduced to a crawl. Idling at 65 mph uses half as much gas.
"You see guys stretching their fuel mileage late in the race to win," Myers said. "A lot of races are won and lost on fuel mileage. But nobody wins on fuel mileage in the first 100 miles. If you don't have gas, you're not going very far. You don't think about gas until you're out."
Myers said he vividly remembers the 1986 Daytona 500 when Earnhardt lost the lead with less than five miles to go when his Chevrolet ran out of gas. The time it took for him to coast onto pit road and for the team to get the car restarted allowed Geoffrey Bodine to win the race.
The next year Earnhardt won the spring race at Darlington, S.C., when Elliott miscalculated his fuel mileage. Elliott's Ford ran out in the third turn of the final lap, and that allowed Earnhardt to sneak past for an unexpected victory.
A year ago at Atlanta, Jerry Nadeau had a 350-yard lead on the final lap when his Chevrolet - and his luck - ran dry. His car coasted to the finish line, but not before four other cars passed him.
Earnhardt, Elliott and Nadeau are proof you can't win without gasoline.
Schrader, who flipped on his roof while winning the Twin 125 qualifying race at Daytona in 1987, Burton, who crashed while leading when rain brought an early finish in the 1999 Southern 500, and Waltrip, whose engine caved in at the finish line in the 1985 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., are proof you always have a chance - as long as there's at least one drop of gas left in the tank.
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