(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Risk versus reward. That's always the difficult choice in racing.
When Mark Martin won on fumes at Michigan in June, it was worth the risk. The victory was a huge reward, and it was early enough in the season to take a chance.
When he tried to milk the tank and make it to the end Sunday, the risk was far too high.
Martin ran out of fuel on the final lap, finished 31st and put himself in a precarious position for making the Chase.
Martin and the No. 5 Chevy team fell to the bubble spot for the Chase, only 12 points ahead of Brian Vickers, who won the race.
For Vickers and the No. 83 Toyota team, gambling on fuel mileage was worth it. He entered the race 14th in the standings, 96 points outside the Chase cutoff. He had to take some chances.
These are not easy decisions. The best of the best on the pit box can guess wrong.
Chad Knaus is 0-for-2 this season at Michigan. Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas again while leading, this time with three laps to go. But Knaus and Johnson were in position to risk it. Their Chase spot is secure.
"We've won one race on fuel mileage ever," Johnson said on the ESPN telecast. "It is just not what we're good at. I think it's a little too risky for us to even try it."
"In the Chase we wouldn't take a chance like this," Knaus said. "We have [the] luxury to do it right now."
The gamble didn't hurt Johnson. But Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief, should have played it safe.
Gustafson has done a brilliant job this season guiding Martin to a series-best four victories, but this decision will haunt him if they don't make the Chase.
The final caution came with 41 laps to go. Gustafson should have instructed Martin to give up track position by coming in and topping off the fuel tank.
The No. 5 team gambled that Martin could make it, as he did in June, or that the race would have another caution. But yellow flags are rare on the wide 2-mile oval at Michigan.
With 20 laps to go, Gustafson knew they were in trouble. He told Martin to save fuel. Martin did all he could, allowing car after car to pass him. It wasn't enough.
Martin came close to a similar fate when he won in June, as team engineer Chris Heroy explained last week on the Hendrick Motorsports Web site.
"I was about a quarter [lap] off," Heroy said. "We ran out in [Turn] 4. When Mark said, 'I'm out,' I stood up and was like, 'Uh oh. Come on. Come on.' Luckily, we had built enough of a lead that we were able to win it."
The crew clearly thought they could do it again, but this time, it wasn't worth the risk.
Now Martin heads to Bristol with three races remaining until the 12-man playoff field is set. Talk about risk. Every lap at Bristol is a possible wreck on the tiny half-mile oval.
Nationwide Series: Keselowski reels in Vickers, Busch in Michigan thriller
Yes, great racing is possible at Michigan, as Saturday's Carfax 250 proved. The final two laps were quite a show, a three-way battle that led to harsh words afterward between Busch and Vickers.
Busch didn't like it that Vickers forced him down to the track apron while they were battling for the lead heading to the final lap. Meanwhile, Keselowski took the high line and drove by both of them.
Vickers had no apologies afterward.
"Last time I checked, it wasn't the Kyle Busch show," Vickers said on TV. "I thought we were out there racing for the win. I thought it was my job to hold him off."
And Busch? Along with criticizing Vickers, he said Keselowski didn't deserve to win it.
Apparently, in Busch's eyes, anyone who races him hard and passes him doesn't deserve to win.
Busch is well on his way to becoming the unhappiest series champion ever.
Barring a colossal collapse, he's going to win the title. Busch is 339 points ahead of Carl Edwards and 369 ahead of Keselowski.
Camping World Truck Series: You ready for some racing Wednesday?
The Camping World Truck Series was off, but the trucks will race Wednesday night at Bristol. Ron Hornaday Jr. hopes to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win six consecutive events.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
Monday's SportsNation chat
Ryan McGee has his finger on the pulse of NASCAR, and he will stop to answer your questions. Don't agree with his Power Rankings? Have a burning question? McGee will be here every Monday to mix it up with SportsNation at 2 p.m. ET.
Racing Resources SaysSprint Cup Series
- Brian Vickers won the Carfax 400 at Michigan International Speedway, becoming the 13th different race winner in 23 races in 2009. His last win came at Talladega in October 2006.
- Vickers became the 31st different race winner in 81 Cup races at Michigan. It was his second career victory in his 195th start. He scored his first career win for Red Bull Racing.
- Vickers has finished 11th or better in the last six races. He climbed from 17th to 13th in the point standings in those races, and is now only 12 points out of the Chase.
- Any driver with a 586-point lead or more over 13th-place Brian Vickers is mathematically locked into the 2009 Chase. Tony Stewart (721 ahead) locked by starting in Sunday's race. Any driver more than 586 points behind 12th-place Mark Martin has been eliminated from the 2009 Chase.
- This marked the first win by Toyota at Michigan. Chevrolet has scored 12 wins in 22 races in 2009, leading all manufacturers. Toyota has seven, and Dodge and Ford each have two.
- Vickers led three times for 12 laps, including the final three.
- Jimmie Johnson finished 33rd after running out of fuel with just over two laps to go. He led six times for 133 laps, the most of the day.
- Jeff Gordon (second) posted his 11th top-5 finish of the season and moved from third to second in points. Gordon led his career 1,000th time in a Cup race.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third in his 350th series race. It was just his second top-5 finish of the season.
- Joey Logano (seventh) was the highest-finishing Rookie of the Year contender.
- Tony Stewart (17th) ended a 10-race streak of top-10 finishes that began at Dover.
- Jeff Burton (18th) has finished 16th or worse in the last nine races, since Michigan in June.
- Juan Pablo Montoya (19th) ended a nine-race streak of top-15 finishes that began at Pocono in June.
- Kyle Busch (23rd) dropped from 13th to 15th in points and is now 70 points behind 12th-place Mark Martin.
- Stewart and Elliott Sadler (25th) have each been running at the finish in the last 46 races, the longest current streak.
- The top 10 consisted of four Toyotas, four Chevrolets, one Ford and one Dodge.
- Michigan native Brad Keselowski won the Carfax 250 at Michigan International Speedway. Keselowski hails from Rochester Hills, Mich.
- Keselowski became the 14th different race winner in 18 races at Michigan.
- This was the fourth straight race in which Kyle Busch was passed by the eventual winner in the final lead change of the race.
- Keselowski scored his fifth Nationwide Series victory in 92 career races. It marked his third win of 2009 and his second in the last three races. He led twice for three laps, including the final lap.
- This was crew chief Tony Eury Sr.'s fourth win at Michigan with three different drivers: Steve Park, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Keselowski became the eighth different winner in the last eight races at Michigan.
- This was the first last-lap pass at Michigan. This marked the second last-lap pass of the season. The other came at Talladega.
- JR Motorsports scored its seventh series victory and third in 2009.
- Kyle Busch (third) ended a streak of 10 straight first- or second-place finishes.
- With his lead on Lap 14, Busch has led in 20 consecutive races, the most consecutive races led by a driver in series history.
- Busch has a 339-point lead over second-place Carl Edwards, the biggest lead of the season. Edwards (40th) posted his first DNF in 45 races since May 2008 at Darlington.
- David Ragan (fourth) posted his first top-10 finish in three races at Michigan.
- Kevin Harvick (fifth) posted his sixth top-10 finish in eight races at Michigan.
- Justin Allgaier (seventh) was the highest-finishing Rookie of the Year contender.
- Jason Leffler (11th) has finished in the top 15 in 21 of the last 23 races.