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Mears stretches fuel to win Coca-Cola 600, first Cup race

CONCORD, N.C. -- 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.