Stewart's gamble pays off with Kansas victory

Monday, October 2nd 2006, 8:39 am
By: News On 6

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) _ Free from the pressure of chasing the championship, Tony Stewart could gamble on gas and joke about it afterward.

But for Nextel Cup contenders Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the oddball finish to Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway was no laughing matter.

Stewart ran out of gas on the last lap, but still was able to coast to victory in the Banquet 400. Asked what it felt like to not be in control of his racing fate after running out of gas, Stewart said it actually wasn't so bad.

``I don't know,'' Stewart joked. ``I guess my job is for the most part over at that point.''

Earlier in the race, crew chief Greg Zipadelli told Stewart that he expected to run out of gas one-half lap from the end. They decided to go for it anyway.

``You're a little bit off,'' Stewart said, turning to Zipadelli in the postrace news conference. ``Not far.''

Johnson could have made a similar gamble for the victory. But as a championship contender, he played it by the book and gave up the race lead to pit for an extra splash of fuel with four laps to go.

It ended up costing him when was penalized for speeding on pit road, and finished 14th.

Johnson seemed skeptical of the penalty after the race.

``We had such a big lead over the guys running in second and third and all that, so I wouldn't get beat by them,'' Johnson said. ``So I wasn't in a hurry to get on pit road. I just wanted to get on and off and get back into the race and evidently I got a speeding violation.''

Gordon saw his championship momentum evaporate a few laps earlier. Gordon was running eighth when his car developed an apparent fuel-pressure problem with 29 laps to go, causing him to slow to a crawl on the backstretch.

After getting a push back to the pits from former Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte, Gordon's crew tried to fix his car but couldn't get him back on the track. He finished 39th.

``We can still win the championship, but I am just upset right now,'' Gordon said. ``I want to know what happened, I want to get out of here and move on.''

Casey Mears also gambled on gas and finished second, zigzagging his way to the checkered flag to try to force the last drops of fuel from his tank into his engine.

``It's definitely a booster in morale with the team and with myself,'' Mears said. ``It's a positive note by every sense of the word.''

Chase contender Mark Martin finished third. Martin, a self-described pessimist who has come agonizingly close to winning championships in the past, said he fully expects to wreck at Talladega Superspeedway next weekend.

But if that doesn't happen, he says, who knows?

``So far, I haven't had a disaster _ so let's go see what happens,'' Martin said.

Dale Jarrett finished fourth, his first top-five finish in his final season with Robert Yates Racing.

``That's good for Robert and Doug (Yates) and for the morale of the team and hopefully for them to land a sponsor and make things continue to do well,'' Jarrett said.

Jeff Burton, who broke a five-year winless streak and grabbed the points lead last weekend at Dover, also used a conservative fuel strategy and finished fifth. Burton was running second when he pitted for a splash of fuel with nine laps to go.

Sunday's race caused a major shakeup in the points standings. Burton came into the race with a six-point lead over Gordon in the standings, and leaves with an unofficial 69-point lead over Denny Hamlin, who managed to climb two spots with an 18th-place finish.

``I hate those fuel mileage things,'' Burton said. ``But my guys did a great job today.''

Martin moved up to third in the standings, 70 points behind Burton. Gordon dropped four spots to sixth, 120 points behind Burton.

Burton barely avoided trouble early in the race when Ryan Newman spun out directly in front of him. Burton quickly swerved to the right, driving through a blinding cloud of smoke to narrowly miss hitting Newman.

Gordon and Kevin Harvick were right behind Burton, and ended up sliding through the infield grass.

Harvick struggled to stay on the pace and was lapped by then-race leader Kyle Busch on lap 118, but climbed to 12th with 83 laps to go and finished 15th. He remains fifth in the standings.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 10th and is seventh in the standings.

Sunday was rougher on Matt Kenseth, who came into the race third in the points but struggled with his car's handling all afternoon and spun out on lap 145. Kenseth was able to rejoin the race but finished 23rd and dropped from third to fourth in the standings.

``That's a really bad finish, but it's not a total disaster, either,'' Kenseth said.