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Mears wins Coca-Cola 600, records first career victory

May 28, 2007 - 3:57 AM CONCORD, North Carolina (Ticker) -- Hendrick Motorsports has completely dominated the Nextel Cup Series this season. Casey Mears got into the act in NASCAR's marathon race.

Mears benefited from a late gamble Sunday night, winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

It was the first career victory for Mears, who ended a string of 155 races without a win. The 29-year-old collected the ninth checkered flag this season for Hendrick Motorsports, which has thrived off the success of superstars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon over the circuit's first 11 races.

But on Sunday, it was Mears who was celebrating in Victory Lane. After nearly falling out of the top five with just 10 laps remaining, Mears and crew chief Darian Grubb opted against following the rest of the leaders to pit road for extra fuel, hoping that the No. 25 Chevrolet Monte Carlo had enough left in the tank to reach the finish line.

The gamble ultimately worked, as Mears charged past Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin to capture the checkered flag.

"(Grubb) told me to conserve fuel," said Mears, who averaged 130.222 miles per hour and won $367,425. "That was our game plan. We were a third-place car or fourth-place car at best, and it was the only way to win."

Mears took the lead for good on lap 395, when Hamlin relinquished his lead in favor of a two-second pit for fuel. Mears opened an 11-second lead over J.J. Yeley over the final two laps and barely had enough fuel to cross the finish line.

"I'm out - I'm out of gas," Mears shouted over his radio as he coasted past the finish line nearly 10 seconds ahead of Yeley. "What an unbelievable job guys!"

While Mears was celebrating a long-awaited victory, Johnson, Stewart and several other drivers lamented their late fuel issues.

A three-time winner in this 400-lap event and a five-time champion at this track, Johnson pitted with the lead on lap 338 only to fall victim to a loose lug nut. The reigning series champion fell to 10th before climbing back to fourth on lap 390.

But Johnson's Chevrolet needed more fuel down the stretch, and he was forced to head back to pit road with nine laps left. He eventually finished 10th.

Stewart assumed the lead off pit road on lap 339 and appeared primed for his first victory this season. But after pacing the field for 54 laps, Stewart also was forced to pit for fuel with just seven laps left en route to a sixth-place finish in a Chevrolet.

Stewart's late pit opened the door for Earnhardt, who also was searching for his first win of the campaign. But the lead was short-lived for Earnhardt, who led for only one lap in a Chevy before pitting for fuel on lap 394.

The torch therefore was passed to Hamlin, who also led for just one lap before retreating for pit road for fuel and surrendering the lead to Mears. Earnhardt ran eighth while Hamlin finished ninth. Yeley finished second in a Chevrolet, followed by the Dodge Chargers of Kyle Petty and Reed Sorenson.

"I knew I was going to run out of gas," said Yeley, who registered his best career finish. "The fuel gauge never moved a bit. (My crew) must have been worried that I wasn't going to make it to the end.

"I just wish we could have won. But second is a great way to rebound. The guys were awesome and we had an awesome car all night long. We definitely needed this."

Petty recorded his best finish since Dover in 1997, when he also ran third.

"I am tickled to death for Casey Mears," Petty said. "That kid got what he deserved tonight. A lot of great things are going to come for that kid."

Brian Vickers ran fifth in a Toyota Camry, giving the Japanese auto manufacturer its best finish of the season - its first on the circuit.

The 5 1/2-hour race featured 29 lead changes among 15 drivers and was stalled by 13 cautions, which totaled 62 laps.

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