Tony Stewart has seen both success and failure as a result of fuel mileage gambles at New Hampshire. Last fall, crew chief Darian Grubb's calculations were right on the money, as Stewart stuck it out and was repaid with a victory that propelled him to the Cup championship. In 2011, it worked the other way, as Stewart came up short and finished 24th.
But gambling on mileage at New Hampshire is nothing new for Stewart. He's been doing it since his rookie season, when a first Cup win seemed well within his grasp in the 1999 Jiffy Lube 300. That was, before Stewart's tank went dry with two laps remaining, giving Jeff Burton a surprising victory.
Burton, who had won the previous two spring races at Loudon, needed a provisional to make the field because his car was terrible right from the moment it unloaded from the hauler.
"We were out to lunch," Burton said. "We just put qualifying behind us and got on with the race."
After the final practice, Burton and crew chief Frank Stoddard decided they needed to make wholesale changes to the car. And as soon as the green flag dropped, Burton knew they had hit the right combination.
"We didn't start 38th because it was a bad qualifying lap," Burton said. "We were just slow all weekend.
"We made five changes on the car [race] morning. We got the car in contention when no one thought we could have."
Burton's car was good, but Stewart's was great. After starting 10th, the rookie -- just two years removed from his Indy Racing League championship season -- methodically worked his way to the front, grabbing the lead from teammate Bobby Labonte on Lap 65.
The lead then shuffled hands between Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and John Andretti before Stewart beat everyone out of the pits following a caution flag caused by Dave Blaney's crash on Lap 195.
That meant Stewart had to get 105 laps on his final tank of fuel, something crew chief Greg Zipadelli thought would be doable, based on the mileage calculations from the previous stop.
"We thought we were conserving more fuel throughout the whole run than we had previously," Zipadelli said. "If we did, and we were getting the same fuel mileage we had earlier, we should have made it."
Farther down pit road, Jack Roush -- who owned Burton's No. 99 Ford -- knew they couldn't make it the rest of the way, so he called Burton in for a timed three-second stop to dump just enough fuel in the car.
As Stewart and Andretti continued to circle the track, car after car came down pit road to top off, eventually putting Burton third.
And when both Stewart and Andretti faltered and slowed with two laps remaining, Burton found himself with a golden opportunity. Stewart's crew frantically attempted to get the engine of the No. 20 Pontiac to refire while Burton flashed by to take the lead for the first and only time all day. He beat Kenny Wallace to the finish line by 1.347 seconds and admitted in Victory Lane that he stole one.
"We were fortunate to win," Burton said. "[Joe Gibbs Racing] had a great car and Tony Stewart's a great driver. It's too bad for them."
Upset with himself and his bad luck -- he eventually finished 10th -- Stewart stormed off without comment, something for which he apologized later.
"I wish I hadn't run out of there," Stewart said later. "I was so consumed with emotion after the race was over that I just didn't do the right thing.
"Being the competitor that I am, I'm not exactly the most approachable person after something like that. I really regret what I did, but if I wasn't such a competitor it would have been easy to deal with."
Stewart finally broke into the win column later in the season at Richmond, then added victories at Phoenix and Homestead to become the first rookie to finish in the top 10 since Jody Ridley did it in 1980.
Stewart wasn't the only driver dealing with anger issues following the race. Gordon was involved in incidents with both Rusty Wallace and points leader Dale Jarrett, prompting Jarrett to chase down Gordon in the garage afterwards. Jarrett was tight-lipped when asked to comment what was discussed.
"That's between Jeff and me," he said.
Jarrett got the last laugh, winning the championship by 201 points over Labonte, although Gordon won seven races to Jarrett's four.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.