BROOKLYN, Mich. — Brian Vickers outlasted Jimmie Johnson in yet another fuel-mileage duel at Michigan International Speedway, taking the lead with two laps to go after Johnson ran out of gas and holding on for his first Sprint Cup victory of the season Sunday.
It was the second time in two races at Michigan this season that Johnson's crew gambled on gas and lost. Johnson also was in the lead when he ran out of fuel back in June, handing a win to Mark Martin.
Jeff Gordon finished second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish Jr. Series points leader Tony Stewart, who clinched his spot in the chase by starting Sunday's race, finished 17th.
Crew chief Ryan Pemberton pleaded with Vickers to be gentle with the throttle and save gas in the closing laps — and the driver delivered.
"We've went through this several times," said Vickers, also the October 2006 winner at Talladega. "He's asked me to give him two (laps) and I give him five. So he said, 'Go get it. Just do what you did here last time.' He made the call and it was a great call."
With three races left before the cutoff for NASCAR's season-ending championship chase, the win provided a significant boost to Vickers' chances of qualifying. Vickers jumped one spot in the standings to 13th, and is only 12 points behind Martin for the 12th and final chase qualifying spot. Martin apparently ran out of gas on the final lap and finished 31st.
It was the continuation of a wild weekend for Vickers, who won the pole on Friday and then spent Saturday sparring with Kyle Busch.
Vickers and Busch both are trying to climb into the top 12 in Sprint Cup points to qualify for the chase, and their rivalry ratcheted up during Saturday's Nationwide race when they got caught racing for the lead on the final lap and both were passed for the win by Brad Keselowski.
They exchanged words afterward, but the rivalry didn't appear to spill over into Sunday's race.
Vickers certainly got the best of Busch on Sunday, watching his rival come home 23rd. Busch slipped two spots to 15th in the standings.
And as if that wasn't enough drama, Vickers still isn't sure if he's returning to drive for his team next season.
Johnson had never won at Michigan coming into Saturday despite leading laps in each of his five previous races there. That includes the whopping 146 laps Johnson led at Michigan at June, only to run out of gas in the closing laps and hand a victory to Martin.
"I'm certainly frustrated," Johnson said in a television interview. "We've won one race on fuel mileage ever. It's just what we're not good at. I think it's a little too risky for us to even try it. We got lucky once in Phoenix. Outside of that we always come up short."
Earnhardt was one driver who didn't try to save gas, and it almost worked.
Johnson, Vickers and several other contenders made pit stops with 51 laps to go, seemingly just outside the window they'd need to make it to the end.
Earnhardt then pitted with 42 laps to go, while other leaders such as Johnson, Vickers, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick did not. The No. 88 team's strategy call turned out to be the right one, as Earnhardt could drive all-out to go for the win while others had to drive conservatively in an attempt to save gas.
Earnhardt charged from sixth to third in the final 20 laps, but couldn't quite catch the leaders. Still, it was his best finish since a second in Talladega in April.
"I don't want to get too excited," Earnhardt said. "We want to be up front every week."
It was a tough day for chase contender Kurt Busch, who tangled with David Ragan with 80 laps to go and had to drive his banged-up car back to the garage area for repairs. Busch finished 36th and slipped two spots in the standings but remains a comfortable sixth.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who came into Sunday's race seventh in the standings, made a nice save to keep his car from wrecking after a tire went flat with 59 laps to go. But the extra pit stop cost him time on the track and he finished 19th.