CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Petty looked at the placard on the
podium and joked his name had been spelled wrong. It had been 10
years since Petty was last invited to a post-race news conference,
and the drivers surrounding him weren't exactly regular attendees.
Also crashing the party was Casey Mears, who ended four-plus
years of frustration with his first Nextel Cup victory, and J.J.
Yeley, who put a firm grip on his seat with the highest finish of his career.
NASCAR's longest event of the season was a true race of attrition -- four former champions finished 30th or worse in Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 -- leaving an odd cast of characters as the final five drivers standing.
"I think when you look at the top three or four ... I would say
they're all team efforts. We had nothing to lose," said Petty,
whose third-place finish was his best since 1997.
"A 600-mile race is a long race, nobody does it by themselves.
I think this is a great example of why this is a team sport and how
important the teams are."
It took planning, strategy and a lot of luck for Mears, Yeley,
Petty, Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers to steal the show. All five
scored their best finish of the season, stretching their fuel
farther than the top teams in NASCAR to jumble the scoring tower at
Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jimmie
Johnson -- winner of five of the past eight races at Lowe's -- all
had to stop for gas in the closing laps and assumed everyone else would, too.
When the others didn't, it created confusion for the drivers
accustomed to collecting top-five finishes.
"I thought I was second, man!" exclaimed Earnhardt, who wound
up eighth. "I didn't know those guys stayed out. I would have
rather finished third or second, like we should have. But some of
those guys can afford to gamble."
It frustrated teammates Stewart and Hamlin, who should have a
combined six or so wins this season but instead remain winless
after each gave up the lead in the closing laps to take two seconds
worth of gas. Stewart wound up sixth, Hamlin was ninth.
"You hate fuel-mileage races," grumbled Mike Ford, Hamlin's
crew chief. "There is no glory in winning a fuel-mileage race, other than saying you didn't run hard and were saving fuel. You know that's not our race."
Mears and the others had nothing to lose. All stuck in the back
of the standings, they could afford to gamble on gas and not suffer
season-crippling consequences if they ran out.
But Mears insisted it didn't cheapen their end results.
"Some people might say this was a fuel mileage deal, and
obviously it was at the end of the day," he said. "But we did a
lot out there, too. We conserved and saved the tires in case we had
a run there at the end, and it all paid off."
For Mears and Yeley, the finishes gave them a little bit of breathing room from the scrutiny they've been under.
With Earnhardt -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- looking for a
new ride, all eyes are on the weak links at the top organizations
that Earnhardt is eying.
That's Mears at Hendrick, who entered Sunday night's race ranked
35th in the standings and in the shadow of his more successful
teammates. Series champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have
combined to win seven times this season, and Kyle Busch also has a win.
Although Hendrick insists he's committed to Mears, the lack of
results have put him on the hot seat in the court of public
opinion. and Mears admits he's felt the pressure.
"I never got involved in this sport because I wanted to run
fifth or sixth, I always wanted to win," Mears said. "So there
has always been that pressure there. At times I've questioned
myself, even though that's something you really can't do as a
driver. I've wondered if it was me and what I could do to be better.
"I always thought I was capable of winning races."
Then there's Yeley, who is in the final year of his contract at
Joe Gibbs Racing. He's under enormous scrutiny because he was
promoted at the same time as Hamlin, who won a pair of races last
season and finished third in the final standings.
But Gibbs officials aren't demanding equal success. They'll
settle for improvement and solid runs, and Yeley gave them one on
Sunday night. If it was enough to save his job from Earnhardt, he
didn't know and didn't care.
"If I get fired, I get fired," Yeley said. "There are a
couple of other places I can go. I'm not worried about getting a
ride. If I couldn't find anything in Nextel Cup, I'll go back and
race sprint cars.
"That's the only thing I know how to do, regardless if it's
here or somewhere else."