CONCORD, N.C. — Casey Mears shored up his job security by stretching his fuel to the finish line Sunday night to win the Coca-Cola 600 for his first Nextel Cup victory.
Mears, struggling through his first season at elite Hendrick Motorsports, 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.
Mears and his team gambled and pushed their Chevrolet to the finish, running out of gas moments after he 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.
And it put a Mears back in Victory Lane on the biggest day in racing for the first time in 16 years. Mears is the nephew of Rick Mears, a four-time Indianapolis 500 champion.
Mears seemed overwhelmed during the celebration, and 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.
Kyle Petty was third — his first top five in 10 years — and quickly praised Mears, who was friends with Petty’s late son, Adam.
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 Jimmie 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.