Racing at Michigan International Speedway often comes down to fuel mileage on the fast, two-mile oval, especially with long green flag runs and a scarcity of caution flags to slow the race pace down. In this week’s “Throwback Thursday Theater,” we’ll look back at one of those races that saw the lead swap three times over the last six laps when the leaders fuel tanks began to run dry.
Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch would lead the field to green in the 2009 LifeLock 400, with Busch getting the early jump into the lead. Though Busch would lead the first eight laps, Jimmie Johnson, who had started the race in third, made quick work of Busch’s Toyota as he powered by and took the lead on lap nine.
Johnson would be a familiar site at the front of the field for the majority of the day, leading on four different occasions for a total of 146 laps led. After taking the lead from Greg Biffle with six laps to go, it looked like Johnson would finally be able to capture his first win at Michigan in his 15th start at the track.
However, only three cautions meant long green flag runs throughout the race and fuel mileage began to be a concern as the laps wound down.
Coming off of Turn 4 to take the white flag, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet slowed abruptly as his fuel tank was empty. Though Johnson began shaking the car side to side to try and get what fuel was left into the pickup, his day was done as Biffle streaked back by him to re-take the lead with just one lap to go.
Fuel was also a concern for Biffle, who had been running the same furious pace that Johnson had and a half a lap later, Biffle also ran out of gas down the backstretch.
Mark Martin had gone into fuel conservation mode over the last green flag run, knowing that he did not have speed to keep up with Johnson and Biffle, but also keeping the fuel mileage game in the back of his mind. In the end, it was that strategy that paid off for Martin as he was able to pass Biffle’s slowing car on the final lap and score the win with ease, finishing almost three seconds ahead of second place Jeff Gordon.
As for Biffle and Johnson, the two drivers would finish the day in fifth place and 22nd place, respectively.
The win for Martin continued a career renaissance in 2009 as Martin had returned to full-time competition in the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports after two seasons of part-time racing in the two seasons prior. Martin’s Michigan win was his third of the season at that point and he would go on to win two more races to finish the season second in points. His five win season marked the first time he had won multiple races since 1999.
“Winning with a surprise, for some reason it’s always one of the most fun,” said Martin. “The surprise win in the All Star Race in ’98 was one that I always remember. This is really cool.”
“You know, everybody knows that we have had some horrendous luck this year, and it’s put us pretty far back. We are on the outside looking in to the Chase. We had a great racecar, but for me, I always, always come up short on the gas mileage thing. I always have. If you look at the stats, you know, I’ve lost 25 and won two probably on it. You know, I just don’t have the luck for it.”
“I saw the pace they were wanting to run, and I started saving from the third lap. After I got my track position, I started trying to save. And the car worked perfectly to save fuel today. I was in a position that I could. Last week we weren’t. We restarted fifth, and if a lap or two we were in 11th. All the guys that had stopped and gotten topped off with gas were on me, and we couldn’t save. We weren’t in position. The car wasn’t good enough.”
“But today it was. It was important to me to finish this race. If we were in the top five in points, I would have run out today because I would have went after it. But, you know, we just weren’t. I just had to let ’em go do their thing. I couldn’t save gas and run that pace that they were trying to run both.”
“When the 48 ran out, I knew the 16 was just right up there. I was just lollygagging. I got past the start/finish line. Came on the radio and said, I’ve got fuel pressure right now, I’m gonna go for it. I jumped on the gas, ran hard. I couldn’t believe how much I was gaining on him through the corner. Then all of a sudden I got on the straightaway, I was really gaining on him. It was like, Whoa! Oh, he’s out (laughter). A lot of stuff was happening then.”
“When we came off four, ours started running out. Our battery had been going dead since lap 75. Been nursing no fans all throughout the race, batteries back and forth, all this different stuff.”
“After the race was over, I shut it off at the start/finish line, coasted all the way around. I was gonna try to fire it up just to get it in Victory Lane. It wouldn’t even spin over. So it ran exactly as far as it was gonna run. We had our hands full if we were going to try to go another lap or another mile. That was cool.”