Johnson is a lock to make the Chase and therefore is looking for wins; Vickers went into Sunday's Carfax 400 seated 14th in the standings and needing a little magic to make the 12-driver playoff.
As the laps counted down at Michigan International Speedway, with both drivers paying as much attention to their fuel gauges as they were the asphalt in front of them, Johnson was playing with house money. If he ran out of gas, no big deal. He'd just pack up and move on to Bristol.
A look at how close the drivers ranked seventh through 15th are with three races left before the Chase for the Cup begins. For example, Brian Vickers needs 12 points to catch Mark Martin's 2,791 total points.
|7||Juan Pablo Montoya||
But for Vickers, there was much more on the line. His 2010 contract situation is still up in the air. He hasn't won since 2006. And the Chase. Oh boy, the Chase.
"When you come to two to go, you're sweating bullets," Vickers said. "There was definitely a sickening feeling in the bottom of my stomach that we could run out at any minute."
With two to go, Johnson did run out of gas, putting Vickers in the lead. His crew chief Ryan Pemberton had been imploring his driver to save fuel. Turns out Vickers saved just enough.
"It felt like we put a stake in the ground and it was either going to be we're out of it, we're going to be completely out of the Chase, or we're going to win the race," Pemberton said "You talk about a sickening feeling, man, what a relief to get that one over with. If we ran out, we'd be talking about something else, and that's not making the Chase. And now we got an opportunity to do it."
With three races left before the playoff field is set, Vickers has moved within striking distance of the top 12. He now sits 13th, just 12 points back of Mark Martin.
Which brings us to the flipside.
Despite a series-high four wins, Martin is back on the Chase bubble, slipping dangerously close to falling out altogether. Like Johnson, Martin ran out of fuel, turning a certain top-10 finish into a 31st.
Kyle Busch, a three-time winner this season, didn't do his playoff chances any favors, either. A roller-coaster ride run up and down the leaderboard Sunday ended on the down slope. Busch finished 23rd, knocking him to 15th in the standings, 70 points out of the final Chase spot.
As crushing as it would be for either Busch or Martin to miss the playoffs, considering their success, it would be equally as invigorating for Vickers to make it in.
Three years ago, Vickers' future was anything but bright. He'd made the very curious decision to leave powerful Hendrick Motorsports for upstart Red Bull which, while well funded, was still a newcomer to stock car racing. In Red Bull's first season, Vickers failed to qualify for 13 races, a humiliating fall for a driver who, had he stayed put at Hendrick, appeared destined to be a perennial Chase contender.
"To see it grow from the bottom up – from the ground – it gives it a little something extra," Vickers said Sunday. "To go through the pains that we went through – it seems like just yesterday we were loading up and going home from races that I never dreamed we would; races I'd never qualified outside of the top five from – that was tough, that was painful. That was one of the hardest years of my racing career, probably the hardest."
Vickers' win didn't do anything to dispel the obvious: that Hendrick is still the team to beat. Between them, Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt and Martin led 166 of 200 laps.
However, the race did expose one chink in Johnson's heretofore unblemished armor: He's not a good fuel-mileage racer. Sunday's race was a virtual carbon copy of what happened at Michigan back in June when Johnson led 146 laps only to run out of fuel while leading with one lap to go.
"We've won one race on fuel mileage ever. It is just not what we are good at," admitted Johnson, who led a race-high 133 laps Sunday. "I think it is a little too risky for us to even try it. We got lucky once in Phoenix. Outside of that, we always come up short."
Vickers didn't have that option. He had to gamble to show himself and his team that, after 81 starts together, they could win; he had to gamble to prove to his boss back in Austria that he is worth re-signing; he had to gamble in order to keep his season alive.
And then the gamble had to pay off, because that's the only way to keep playing once you're all in.
Fortunately for Vickers, he hit.
- Brian Vickers
- Mark Martin