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Mayfield wins with fuel strategy

The Associated Press

BROOKLYN, Mich. - The victory celebration was the toughest part of Jeremy Mayfield's day.

After stretching his final tank of gas over the last 52 laps of Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Michigan International Speedway to record his first victory in nearly a year, Mayfield blew his rear tires with a crowd-pleasing burnout, then got tackled by his crew chief.

''I had to do a TV interview with the breath knocked out of me,'' Mayfield said, grinning. ''That was a hard hit.''

No harm, though, as Mayfield walked to Victory Circle to continue the celebration of his fifth career victory and first since a win last September in Richmond that earned him entry into NASCAR's first Chase for the Championship.

It doesn't look like he'll need any last-minute heroics this year.

Sunday's performance move him from seventh to sixth in the season points and virtually assured Mayfield of a spot in the 10-man, 10-race playoffs with just three races remaining until the lineup is locked in.

It was a gutsy gamble by crew chief Slugger Labbe that put Mayfield in this position.

''For my team to do that with the position we're in in the points … '' Mayfield said, letting his words trail off. ''If we had run out of gas, it would have been a big story tomorrow: We ran out of gas, we fell out of the top 10 and I don't make the Chase.

''They deserve a lot of credit for what they did.''

Mayfield was never close to the lead earlier in the 200-lap race. But one by one, the leaders were forced to pit for fuel - and Mayfield inherited the top spot with six laps to go.

''Man, we had a 20th-place car and we robbed the bank,'' the gleeful Labbe said.

There were seven caution flags in the race, but none in the final 51 laps.

''If there had been a caution with 10 laps to go, we'd have been doomed,'' Labbe said. ''But history says from lap 150 on this track stays green, and we took a chance on history.''

Mayfield said he was doing everything he could think of to save fuel at the end, but was confident he could make it.

''When those guys made that choice, I knew they were pretty confident I could make it and I was pretty confident in their decision,'' he said.

''About the last three laps, the motor was sputtering. I was thinking on that last lap, 'It's close, it's close, it's close,' but we got there.''

Many of the teams in the 43-car field had problems with cut tires or engines that overheated when windblown garbage collected on grills, cutting off air to radiators. Mayfield's No. 19 Evernham Motorsports Dodge was no exception.

''It was just a cool, windy day,'' Labbe said. ''You could see the debris coming through the fence. Nothing much you can do.

''Our motor was running 270 (degrees) today. The engine room gets freaked out about 220. It was cooked, but we made it,'' he added.

Scott Riggs also stretched his gas to the end and finished a career-high second, followed by Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who had been battling for the lead prior to the late pit stops.

Kenseth, who made his final stop on lap 181, charged hard to get back into contention but came up well short of Mayfield and Riggs, who finished about five car-lengths apart.

Kenseth said his crew chief, Robby Reiser, ''wanted me to go after Mayfield and I couldn't even see him. We were just hoping he'd run out of gas.

''I always like the fastest car to win, even if it's not me. But they took the big gamble when they could afford to take it and it paid off for them.''

Edwards, who made his Cup debut here a year ago and is now a championship contender, appeared happy with his fourth-place finish.

''That was just a blast,'' he said. ''I had a good time. To be that close to victory and have it go on pit strategy, I just have to congratulate Jeremy. That's just awesome.''

Series points leader Tony Stewart - who came into the race as the hottest driver in stock car racing with five wins in seven starts - never led on Sunday but finished fifth for his eight consecutive top-seven.

Reigning Cup champion Kurt Busch, who dominated during the middle part of the race, wound up seventh, while pole-starter Joe Nemechek, who dropped far back into the pack after a flat tire, came back to finish eighth.

Mayfield moved ahead of Busch in the season points with just three races remaining before the 10-race NASCAR playoffs begin.

Behind them, plenty of questions remained: only 129 points separate eighth-place Ryan Newman, who finished 12th on Sunday, from Jeff Gordon, who somehow managed a 15th-place finish with a terrible car and moved from 13th to 12th in the season points.

Going into next Saturday night's race at Bristol, Edwards is ninth and Jamie McMurray 10th, followed by Dale Jarrett, just 51 points out of the final spot in the Chase, and Gordon, another seven points back.