BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) - Closing in on the checkered flag with mostly fumes in his gas tank, there were only two possibilities for Brian Vickers.
Run out of gas and probably blow any chance at making NASCAR's championship chase - or make a bold move toward title contention by winning the race.
After a surprising gamble on gas by his crew chief, Vickers drove conservatively to conserve fuel. Then he pounced when race leader Jimmie Johnson's tank ran dry, taking the lead with two laps to go and holding on to win Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.
Vickers had confidence in crew chief Ryan Pemberton, but he also had a sick feeling in his stomach during the last few laps.
"I've got to tell you, when you're coming to two to go, I'm still sweating bullets, no matter how much confidence you've got," Vickers said.
Vickers won his second career race, boosted his chances of making the chase and delivered the first checkered flag for Red Bull Racing.
It was the second time in two races at Michigan this season that Johnson's crew gambled on gas and lost. Johnson also was in the lead when he ran out of fuel back in June, handing a win to Mark Martin.
"Certainly frustrated," Johnson said. "We've won one race on fuel mileage ever. It's just what we're not good at. I think it's a little too risky for us to even try it."
Jeff Gordon finished second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish Jr. Series points leader Tony Stewart, who clinched his spot in the chase by starting Sunday's race, finished 17th.
With three races left before the cutoff for NASCAR's season-ending championship chase, the win provided a significant boost to Vickers' chances of qualifying. Vickers jumped one spot in the standings to 13th, and is only 12 points behind Martin for the 12th and final chase qualifying spot.
Martin apparently ran out of gas on the final lap and finished 31st.
It also was the continuation of a wild weekend for Vickers, who won the pole on Friday and then spent Saturday sparring with Kyle Busch.
Vickers and Busch both are trying to climb into the top 12 in Sprint Cup points to qualify for the chase, and their rivalry ratcheted up during Saturday's Nationwide race when they raced for the lead on the final lap and both were passed for the win by Brad Keselowski.
They exchanged words afterward, a confrontation Vickers called "ridiculous" and "unnecessary" Sunday night.
"I feel sorry for Kyle, that he lives that angry about something so small," Vickers said.
Vickers certainly got the best of Busch on Sunday, watching his rival come home 23rd. Busch slipped two spots to 15th in the standings.
And as if that wasn't enough drama, Vickers still isn't sure if he's returning to drive for his team next season.
"We have every intention of getting this done (quickly)," team general manager Jay Frye said.
Johnson has never won at Michigan despite leading laps in each of his last six races there. That includes 133 laps on Sunday and 146 laps in June, only to run out of gas both times.
Earnhardt was one driver who didn't try to save gas, and it almost worked.
Johnson, Vickers and several other contenders made pit stops with 51 laps to go, seemingly just outside the window they'd need to make it to the end.
Earnhardt then pitted with 42 laps to go, while other leaders such as Johnson, Vickers, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick did not. The strategy call by Earnhardt's crew allowed him to drive all-out to go for the win while others had to drive conservatively in an attempt to save gas.
Earnhardt charged from sixth to third in the final 20 laps, but couldn't quite catch the leaders. Still, it was his best finish since a second in Talladega in April.
"I don't want to get too excited," Earnhardt said. "You want to be up front every week like this. You want to be up there the whole race."
By CHRIS JENKINS
AP Sports Writer