From Darrell Waltrip to Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR has seen some thrilling fuel mileage races
They can leave a crew chief's brain overloaded with calculations, a spectator's fingernails chewed down to the nibs, and of course a driver's hopes stalled out on the apron. For sheer drama, few things in racing beat a fuel mileage finish, when the overhanging questions -- Will he make it? Will he run out? -- linger in the air like the smell of burning rubber after a pit stop.
Charlotte Motor Speedway, where NASCAR's premier series competes Saturday night in the fifth round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, has certainly produced its share of memorable finishes determined by a few drops -- or lack thereof -- of gas left in the tank. Although many of those have occurred in the track's springtime 600-miler, fuel mileage races can unfold just about anywhere and anytime, depending on pit cycles and circumstance.
Love them or loathe them, they're as much a part of racing as beer cans or lug nuts or the smell of campfire smoke. And in NASCAR, some of the results they've produced range from shocking to heartbreaking to downright historic. Another one could well unfold Saturday night, when the Sprint Cup cars again take to the 1.5-mile layout in Concord. Until then, here are NASCAR's 10 most memorable fuel mileage moments.
10. A Nation weeps: Charlotte, 2011
A winless streak of nearly three years was coming to an end, and the crowd could sense it. They rose to their feet as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the white flag at Charlotte in the spring of 2011. They clamored as he charged through the final turns. And then Junior Nation sunk into heartbreak as the No. 88 car slowed off the final corner, allowing Kevin Harvick to zip by and win the race. Earnhardt knew he had no chance -- he'd actually run dry on the backstretch. "What am I supposed to do? Get out and pedal this thing with my feet?" he told his spotter. Even the winner sympathized: "I feel like complete crap," Harvick said. Earnhardt's winless skid reached 105 races that night, and it would be another year before it would finally come to an end.
9. No weaknesses: Dover 2012
As is so often the case at Dover, Jimmie Johnson was the driver to beat as the laps wound down on that fall afternoon in 2012. But he also struggled to manage his fuel down the stretch of an event that would prove critical in the championship race. As Johnson throttled back to try and make it to the end, Brad Keselowski managed the final 89 laps of the race on a single fuel run, propelling him to a victory that moved him to first place in the standings. "They don't slow down a lot, and they save fuel a lot," Johnson lamented after finishing fourth. After his second win in three weeks, Keselowski put it more succinctly: "No weaknesses," he said of a team that would finish the season just as it did that day in Delaware -- on top.
8. Second chance: Darlington, 1987
The Man in Black and the Lady in Black clearly had a thing for one another, as evidenced by Dale Earnhardt's nine victories at Darlington. But he needed some help in the spring of 1987, despite leading 239 laps. With 11 to go the Intimidator gave up a 13-second lead to pit for fuel, and fell to third behind Ken Schrader and Bill Elliott. Schrader soon pitted as well, and Earnhardt set his sights on Elliott -- but got too eager with four laps remaining, and banged off the first-turn wall. "I said, 'Earnhardt, you big dummy.' My heart was in my shoe," he said later. He was granted a reprieve when Elliott ran out of gas off the final corner, and the No. 3 car zipped around to win. "We did the only thing we could do," Elliott said. Against Earnhardt at Darlington, it wasn't enough.
7. No Tiny feat: Daytona, 1963
It was perhaps the most unthinkable Daytona 500 victory ever, one that never should have even started much less ended the way it did. DeWayne "Tiny" Lund, a racer whose personality was every bit as large as his frame, had enjoyed only minor successes in NASCAR circles when he arrived at Daytona in 1963. But when Marvin Panch crashed in a sports-car race, it was the 270-pound Lund who helped pull him from the fiery wreckage. With Panch out, the Wood Brothers put Lund in their No. 21 car for the Great American Race. Working with a team already known for its innovation, Lund managed the race on one fewer pit stop than everyone else. When Ned Jarrett pitted with fewer than eight laps remaining, a most unlikely story found a victorious end.
6. Stalled out: Sonoma, 2010
It stemmed from the best of intentions -- Marcos Ambrose trying to save enough fuel under caution to get to the finish at Sonoma Raceway, and deliver a Sprint Cup victory that would be a first for both the Australian driver and his JTG Daugherty race team. Ambrose was leading with 10 laps remaining when the caution flew, and in an effort to conserve fuel the driver flipped his engine on and off. But when the No. 47 stalled and cars began to pass it, NASCAR ruled Ambrose hadn't maintained a reasonable speed, and he was forced to restart seventh. "I don't agree with it, I don’t like it, and that's only because I lost the race," he said after Johnson went on to win. Ambrose finished sixth, and would have to wait another year before his first victory at NASCAR's top level.
5. Third to first: Michigan, 2009
Johnson had found himself in the middle of another fuel mileage race a year earlier, this one with less pleasant results, and on a Michigan track that continues to frustrate him to this day. In an event that was among the most riveting of the 2009 season, Johnson and Greg Biffle seemed poised to decide the outcome among themselves in the waning laps. But the one-on-one duel drained both drivers' fuel tanks, and approaching the while flag Johnson -- who had led 146 circuits -- finally ran dry and faded to 22nd. Suddenly Biffle was all by himself, but because he had worked so hard to try and hold off Johnson, he too ran out, on the backstretch of the final lap. That left the race to third-place Mark Martin, who led just one lap. The last one.
4. Third time's a charm: Daytona, 1986
Dale Earnhardt had beaten Geoffrey Bodine twice already that Speedweeks, both times by narrow margins, in a 125-mile qualifying race and in what is now the Nationwide Series. The Daytona 500, though, would prove a different story. Bodine and Earnhardt chased one another around the 2.5-mile track setting a torrid pace at the front of the pack, and helping Bodine build a five-second lead after the cars made their final stops with 40 to go. Earnhardt chased him down in 15 laps -- but paid a price with three circuits remaining, when the No. 3 car ran out of fuel and faded to 14th. Bodine cruised to an 11-second victory over Terry Labonte, giving a young car owner named Rick Hendrick his biggest win yet.
3. Last man standing: Charlotte, 2007
It all felt so familiar, yet so strange at the same time. A Mears in Victory Lane, and a Petty in the mix at the end. Except it wasn't Rick and Richard -- it was Casey and Kyle, capping one of the most topsy-turvy nights in modern NASCAR history. Johnson led the most laps in the 600-miler, but fell back when his crew dropped a lug nut. Tony Stewart emerged as the favorite, but pitted late for fuel. When Denny Hamlin pitted with five laps left, the last man standing was Casey Mears, who stretched his tank all the way to the finish for his first career Sprint Cup win. Behind him came J.J. Yeley, Petty, and Reed Sorenson, all of them bumping aside the sport's big guns on the longest night of the year.
2. Duel in the desert: Phoenix, 2010
Johnson's run of consecutive titles seemed finished in the penultimate event of the 2010 season, when Denny Hamlin built a 78-point advantage over a four-time champion whose car was lumbering around the 1-mile Phoenix track. "Find us a little something," crew chief Chad Knaus exhorted, almost desperate. Their big break came in the form of a caution under which the No. 48 car began saving fuel. Johnson somehow stretched it for the final 77 laps, saving his season in the process. Hamlin pitted late for gas, falling from the race lead to 12th, while Johnson salvaged a top-five that trimmed the points gap to 15. Afterward Hamlin looked shaken, Johnson unstoppable. A week later, he'd look like a five-time champion.
1. "I won the Daytona 500!": Daytona, 1989
He had won everything else there was to win in NASCAR -- a trio of premier-series championships, dozens of race victories -- but the biggest event of them all somehow kept evading him. Sixteen times Darrell Waltrip had started the Daytona 500, and 16 times someone else went to Victory Lane. His 17th attempt seemed similarly fated. "I'm out!" he shouted over the radio to crew chief Jeff Hammond when his fuel pressure dropped to zero. "Shake it!" was the response, urging Waltrip to swerve the car to get the remaining fuel to the pickup. The driver did just that. He would have enough to get to the finish.
But not his closest pursuers. Running in seventh with 35 laps to go, Waltrip and Hammond had decided to try and stretch it to the end, which required some serious finessing of the gas pedal. As Waltrip feathered the throttle and worked the draft, leaders Schrader and Earnhardt pitted for gas with 10 laps remaining. That moved Alan Kulwicki to the front, but he cut a tire. Suddenly it was Waltrip in the lead by eight seconds, and by himself. He cruised home from there, driving his No. 17 car to victory in his 17th Daytona 500, a career capper punctuated by one of NASCAR's most famous celebrations. "I won the Daytona 500!" he cried, as if needing to convince himself. "I won the Daytona 500!"