May 27, 2007
CONCORD, N.C. -- (cbssportsline.com/AP) Casey Mears looked wide-eyed around Victory Lane, astounded by the celebration surrounding him.
He gambled his way to his first Nextel Cup win, stretching his fuel to the finish line in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night.
It put a Mears back in Victory Lane on the biggest day in racing for the first time since 1991, and the nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears was overwhelmed by the moment.
"My uncle won four races on this day, and what a special day just because of that," Mears said with tears in his eyes.
"My family has had an unbelievable history of racing, and I've always wanted to make my mark with my family. We've got a long ways to go, a long ways to go, and a lot of races to run, but it sure feels good to win today."
Struggling through his first season at elite Hendrick Motorsports, Mears ran strong all night at Lowe's Motor Speedway, but only took the lead when others ducked onto pit road for a splash of gas.
The No. 25 team -- considered the weakest of Hendrick's four-team fleet -- pushed its Chevrolet to the finish, finally running out of gas moments after Mears took his first checkered flag. It was Hendrick's fifth straight win and the ninth in the past 10 Nextel Cup races, but came from the unlikeliest driver.
Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have all won races this season, but Mears came into the race 35th in the standings with only one top-10 finish.
So when Mears reached the Victory Lane celebration -- where his parents were sobbing with pride, and Johnson, his best friend, joined the party -- he needed a moment to make sure it was real.
"Actually, let me look at this for a second," he said, turning to look at the scoring tower.
J.J. Yeley, like Mears considered one of the drivers in jeopardy of losing their ride to make room for free agent Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished second for the first top-five finish of his career.
"This is probably the first time in two years of Cup racing I didn't catch the bad break," Yeley said. "I've always run into bad luck."
Kyle Petty was third -- his first top five in 10 years -- and quickly praised Mears, who was friends with Petty's late son, Adam.
"I couldn't be more excited for Casey Mears if his name was Adam Petty," Petty said. "I am tickled to death for Casey Mears. I want to tell you something: That kid got what he deserved tonight. I want to say, on the record, a lot of great things are going to come for that kid."
Reed Sorenson was fourth, and Brian Vickers was fifth in the highest finish this season for Toyota.
In fact, the top five all celebrated their best result of the year.
Tony Stewart, who seemed to have the win in the bag after Johnson gave it away in the pits, wound up sixth after figuring he was two laps short on fuel and had to make a late stop.
"I don't know. I'm just a driver. I don't calculate fuel," Stewart grumbled. It's at least the fourth time this season Stewart lost a win he seemingly had in the bag.
Ricky Rudd was seventh, followed by Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin. Johnson, who came into the event with five wins in the past eight races, wound up 10th after his crew dropped a lug nut during a pit stop with 62 laps remaining.
Johnson had led 82 laps and was out front when he brought the field into the pits. But his Hendrick crew made a rare mistake while changing his tires, lost time scooping up the dropped part, and Johnson came out of the stop in 10th place.
Stewart, meanwhile, had a flawless stop and came out of the pits in first. He led Mears and Earnhardt on the restart with 59 laps to go, and it should have been smooth sailing from there.
But like almost all the other teams, Stewart worried he wouldn't have enough gas to make it to the finish line. He was one of the last drivers to surrender and head down pit road for a splash of gas. It put Earnhardt out front, but he had to stop for gas and it turned the lead over to Hamlin.
But Hamlin went in for gas with five laps left, putting Mears out front.
Crew chief Darian Grubb coaxed Mears to take it easy on the gas pedal and make it to the finish line.
"It was an excellent call -- he told me to conserve fuel," Mears said. "That was our game plan. We were a third-place car, a fourth-place car at best, and it was the only way to win.
"I can't believe I'm sitting here right now."
The 600 is a race of attrition and drivers typically attack it in segments, striving to still be running when the sun goes down. That's when the track cools, the cars begin to settle and the real racing begins.
But in an unusually hectic start, 18 cars were involved in two accidents less than 150 miles into the event.
The first accident, a 13-car melee, began when Johnson's tire flew off his Chevrolet and went sailing through traffic. Drivers ducked right and left to avoid the flying rubber, but all the jockeying triggered a pileup.
Johnson escaped serious damage, as did Stewart, one of the first cars to spin. Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray and rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, who was convinced he had a car capable of winning, were not so lucky.
"Welcome to NASCAR, I guess," said the former Indianapolis 500 champion and Formula One driver.
As those drivers were looking over their damaged cars, five more were collected when Tony Raines spun and smashed into points leader Gordon. It sent Gordon into the wall at the same time he was hit by A.J. Allmendinger, and the simultaneous contact sent Gordon airborne.
He was OK after a brief check at the care center, but his streak of seven consecutive top-four finishes was snapped. It's also the fifth straight time he's failed to finish at this track.
Gordon, who started the race with a 231-point lead in the standings, finished 41st and saw his lead shrink to 132 points over Johnson. But he seemed most concerned with his wife, who was watching from New York where she is awaiting the birth of their first child.
"I'm OK, and I want to say `Hi' to Ingrid at home because I know she's probably a little nervous right now," he said. "But I'll be home soon."
Cars dropped out one at a time from there, including pole-sitter Ryan Newman, who apparently lost his engine during a pit stop midway through the race. As Newman was in the garage looking under his hood, teammate Kurt Busch lost control of his car and bumped into the wall.
The two Penske drivers had started first and second, but Newman wound up 37th and Busch finished 32nd after leading 107 laps.
The Associated Press News Service