As Tony Stewart took the checkered flag for the second consecutive week, we witnessed yet another race where fuel mileage played a part of the outcome. It’s been something that’s become more common as of late, as numerous races during the year have had fuel strategy come into play. With it already playing a huge part in the first two Chase races, many are worried that it will become a factor in determining who wins the title this year.
It’s certainly led to some debate as to whether or not fuel races are good for the sport in general. One of the biggest complaints that gets thrown around is that the winner of a race should be determined by who has the fastest car, not who can save the most fuel. It’s not just the fans who have a difference of opinion on the subject, but the drivers have voiced their beliefs on it, too.
Matt Kenseth, after finishing a disappointing 21st at Chicago once he ran out of fuel on the final lap Monday, expressed a great amount of frustration with the fact that going fast isn’t always the key to victory.
“Honestly, I don’t know what they can do about it but it’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s really frustrating to be a race- ar driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans and you have to run half throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas.”
But not everyone is on the fuel mileage bandwagon of criticism. In fact, one person who thinks differently from that is surging Brad Keselowski, who ironically won Kansas earlier this year based off of fuel strategy.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I don’t think it’s bad racing, personally. I know there’s people that do. I think for the most part the fastest car still ends up winning the race, not always, but for the most part. I think if you looked at the odds on how many fuel mileage races there’s been, I would say over 50 percent the fastest car still wins the race. Both Tony and Jeff were fast. Tony ended up winning it. Probably could have made a case for either one of those two being the best car. But that’s just not the way it played out.”
A more neutral perspective came from Greg Biffle, who finished a season-high third at New Hampshire this past weekend. Biffle has been plagued by the fuel game on several occasions this year and notes that saving fuel doesn’t always happen on the final run.
“Yeah, it’s funny how every race kind of comes down to it. But if you just take a little snapshot of our season, people think that a fuel mileage race is the last run of the day,” he said. “Really, truly, every race is a fuel mileage race if it has a green flag pit stop in it because who can go the furthest. If the caution comes out at that particular moment, it can trap certain guys.”
While a lot of people may want to side with Kenseth on this issue, he is wrong. There’s a reason these races are 400-500 miles in length. If stock car racing was all about who had the fastest car and nothing else, then the race winner would be determined on Friday during a two-lap qualifying session. There are plenty more variables involved. Before Goodyear had brought such a durable tire, it was common for drivers to conserve their equipment so they could be strong at the end of a run. But with the tires hardly falling off during the course of a green flag stint these days, fuel conservation has essentially replaced saving one’s tires.
In my beginning days as a fan, one of my biggest worries for the drivers I would pull for would be whether their engine would hold up the entire race. It kept my anxiety level pretty high, therefore creating a good level of excitement for me throughout. With advancements in technology over the years, engine failures have become almost non-existent, though and as a result, I don’t expect or worry that a driver will have an equipment failure. However, I lately have found a similar drama in wondering who will have enough fuel for the finish. Just like it has replaced the whole tire conservation approach, not getting exceptional fuel mileage can rob you of a strong finish in the blink of any eye, much like engine failures would do.
Another thing to look at is what is causing the recent trend in cars running out of gas during the final laps? Well most recently at New Hampshire, the final 122 laps were run without a caution, and Chicago it was the final 50 laps. Carl Edwards commended NASCAR for this after Sunday’s race, that the sanctioning body looks to be letting these races play out naturally, without the aid of a debris caution with ten laps to go. Hasn’t that been the biggest complaint in recent years? While debris cautions are still more common than they probably should be, it seems that at least the last quarter of the race is being run without a “Chase caution,” as I like to call it.
If this year’s championship is determined by who conserved the most fuel, than so be it. No one should have a problem with that. There are so many elements involved to an entire race, an entire season for that matter, that it is silly to discredit a potential champion just because of better fuel conservation. It shouldn’t always be the fastest car that makes it to Victory Lane; it should be the smartest team.
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