89.9 cents a gallon!

"I like all the competition," smiled Andrew McCauley, 32, as he filled up his blue Chevy pickup with 89.9-cent regular gas at a Crown station on Centreville Road and Weir Place in Manassas.

McCauley, of Manassas, was capitalizing yesterday on the grand opening of a Sheetz gas station about two miles up the road. The debut of the discount gas retailer Wednesday has spurred a mini price war along Centreville Road, leading Crown, another discount seller, to match Sheetz's prices and other gas stations to lower theirs dramatically.

"We like our customers happy, no matter how much money we lose," said Crown manager Rimpy Randhawa.

The new Sheetz has forced neighboring gas stations to slash prices to compete. Nearby Exxon and Shell were both selling regular gas at 98.9 cents a gallon yesterday, almost a dime cheaper than last week. Managers at both stations said they hope prices go up soon.

Meanwhile, Sheetz's bright red, yellow and orange station has lured drivers like moths to a flame. Cars waited sometimes three deep at the station's 10 self-serve pumps to get their fill of bargain prices.

"The prices are exceptional," said Freeland Young, 68, of Herndon.

After some confusion (he had to read the instructions--lift nozzle, then choose the grade--to the complaints of his wife, Norma, "This must be why the lines take so long"), Young estimates he saved nearly $4 on a tankful compared with prices in Herndon.

Another car pulled in after the Youngs. "I am happy," Janet Pennington, of Centreville, said of the low prices. "Today."

"We price very aggressively to draw people into our new store," said Dan McMahon, executive vice president of Sheetz Inc. in Altoona, Pa. "It's possible we could start a price war, but the customer always benefits from competition."

Sheetz's two other Prince William locations, in Woodbridge and Haymarket, haven't lowered their prices. McMahon said he is not sure how long the low prices will last. He also wouldn't say how much--if anything--Sheetz makes on 89.9-cents-a-gallon gas.

In the meantime, local drivers are starting to build brand loyalty.

Butch Reid, 44, of Manassas, pulled his pickup into the new Sheetz for a fill-up before traveling to Martinsburg, W.Va.

"I am a loyal Sheetz customer," said Reid, scratching his beard, "so long as it's got the lowest prices."