** Fuel mileage races in NASCAR certainly don’t excite us nearly as much as last lap, multicar dashes to the checkered flag, but they do have their elements of drama.
Consider the last two Sprint Cup events, last week at Charlotte and this past Sunday at Kansas. Both were, ultimately, fuel mileage races in which the winner was going to be the team that most ably managed gas mileage – either through strategy, driver tactics or both.
As hard as he tried at Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of gas just as he came through the third and fourth turns at Charlotte Motor Speedway while leading on the last lap.
As a result Kevin Harvick whisked by Earnhardt Jr. and snatched his third victory of the year.
You can imagine how disappointed the Earnhardt Jr. fans were as they hoped to see their man win his first races in 104 tries. It might have been dramatic but they certainly didn’t give a hoot.
Ironically, Earnhardt Jr. figured prominently in the finish at Kansas.
This time, however, he didn’t run out of gas. He just could not catch Brad Keselowski, who played his team’s fuel strategy beautifully to win the second race of his career.
Keselowski made his final pit stop with 57 laps remaining in the 267-lap race. He was in 10th place at the time and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, calculated that should the event proceed unabated under the green flag, Keselowski would – make that could – have enough gas to finish without pitting.
But it was clear that to make it, Keselowski would have to preserve as much fuel as possible.
Keselowski watched car after car peel off for pit road, among them those of Denny Hamlin, who stopped on lap 215 and Earnhardt Jr., who took gas one lap later.
Keselowski took the lead when teammate Kurt Busch pitted just 10 laps shy of the finish.
If Keselowski had enough gas to make it, surely Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. did as well.
So the question became, would Keselowski make it to the finish or be overtaken by either Hamlin or Earnhardt Jr.? That was the drama.
Wolfe said after the race that he knew Keselowski had a shot.
“We started picking up a lot of speed there,” Wolfe said. “I don’t know if it was clean air or what. As everybody kept pulling off and pitting, we got faster and faster.”
Fast or not, Keselowski still went into reserve mode. As was ably presented on the Fox broadcast, the 27-year-old driver repeatedly rolled out of the gas and let the engine idle through the turns, thereby conserving fuel.
For a while, Earnhardt Jr., running in second place, seemed to be advancing on Keselowski. But his attacked stalled and he finished 2.8 seconds in arrears.
This time, at least, Earnhardt Jr. didn’t lose by running out of gas. His second-straight runnerup finish propelled him one position in the point standings, into third.
As said, fuel mileage races don’t provide many nail-biting finishes. And some fans tend to write off winners of such events as guys who simply “got lucky” because of circumstances.
That my be true in some instances, but fuel mileage races tend to remind us there is much more to successful racing than a fast car and pit crew.
There’s strategy, for example. When a crew chief makes the call to avoid the pits as a race winds to its conclusion, often he’s taking a big gamble.
Sure, he’s been given estimates and such, but estimates are just that – calculated guesses.
And guesses can be wrong. They often are.
As much as strategy can play a role in fuel mileage events, driving can as well.
When it comes to gas mileage, obviously it’s not about going fast. It’s about driving properly according to the situation – using all the tricks available and at the right time.
Which means, obviously, a driver has to know a great deal more than how to mash the gas. Some competitors have learned this better than others.
It’s all simply another facet of racing, which, no matter what we think of it, comes into play and can determine who wins or loses.
Last week, Earnhardt Jr. lost.
This week, Keselowski won.
When it comes to fuel mileage racing, rest assured, in the future there will be other names.
** The 2011 season started with five different winners in the first five races.
Keselowski became the sixth different winner in the last six races. Interestingly, he is one of a few drivers who didn’t figure prominently in pre-season forecasts.
Others include Trevor Bayne, who won at Daytona, and Regan Smith, the winner at Darlington.
I don’t think anyone can complain when drivers win for the first time or are victorious when given little chance to be.
While this year’s new winners may be surprising, what is more so is to learn what drivers haven’t won and, by all accounts, were expected to by now.
They include Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and, OK, Mark Martin.
All of them, save Biffle, Burton and Martin, are among the top 10 in points and are, as of now, on target to make the Chase.
Speaking of points, under the new system, two “wildcard” selections for the Chase will be made among the top 20 in the standings, placed according to their number of victories.
The only driver among the top 20 and presently OK for the Chase is Jeff Gordon, ranked No. 13 with one victory.
Keselowski at 21st, Smith at 29th and Bayne, at 45th, are all out of contention for now – and other than Keselowski, it appears even another victory won’t do much good.
On the other hand, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are virtually assured of places in the Chase.
Harvick is fourth in points with three wins, Busch in fifth and Kenseth in seventh, each with two victories.
It would appear that, points-wise, they are going to have to sink like stones in water to miss the Chase.