The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions: Fuel Mileage, Johnson's Chances, and Those Other Championship Battles by Mike Lovecchio -- Thursday September 29, 2011

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What should NASCAR do about an increasing number of fuel mileage races?

This year’s Chase field is one of the deepest since the start of the playoff format. Going into the final ten races, fans and media members could reel off a list of ten drivers who had just as good of a chance as the next to claim the Sprint Cup. And while through the first two Chase races we’ve seen the parity we’ve all expected, we’ve seen fuel mileage take center stage…and a driver who failed to win a race in the first 26 events take advantage of the situation to claim two wins. Fuel mileage racing has certainly jumbled up the points standings and turned great days into poor ones, and visa versa, but the last lap excitement it provides has divided fans.

On one side you have the fans that accept fuel mileage racing for what it is – a product of this era of NASCAR racing, but for every fan that takes a fuel mileage race in stride and enjoys it the same as the last, you have those fans that claim that it is ruining the racing and hindering what would be an exciting Chase. I get it. Fuel mileage racing sucks. Most often it is caused by a long green flag run, at about the time fans are gearing up for what they hope is an exciting finish. Cars are cruising around conserving fuel, concerning themselves more about pace than racing their competition.

But what can be done? Has Goodyear made their tires too good? Should we be calling for more tire fall off throughout a run? Should NASCAR throw a mandatory caution at the end of the race and set up a shootout to the finish? The answer to both is, no. While it would nice to see tires “go” quicker throughout a run, this is what we’ve been asking for. For years fans complained about NASCAR throwing debris cautions at the end of the race to spice up the finish, but as soon as they stop, those same fans complain about how boring the races are. This is simply a byproduct of today’s racing. It may not be the best it’s been, but it’s still been an exciting year. Not every race will end in fuel mileage. You’ll have fuel mileage races that end with long green flag runs; you’ll have races that end in green-white-checkered. Not every race can be a classic. But any race can.

Is this weekend Jimmie Johnson’s final hope at a sixth consecutive championship?

Jimmie Johnson is in an uncharacteristic position this Chase…behind the pack.

Sitting in his lowest career Chase position, Jimmie Johnson is quickly running out of time if he wants to win a sixth championship. With eight races remaining, and Johnson tenth in points (29 points out), Dover will now be the tell-tale race for the No. 48 team. It’s no secret that Johnson owns Dover. The Monster Mile has been tamed by the No. 48 on six occasions, including an additional eight top 5s and 13 top 10s, but never has Johnson been in this position heading to what is widely considered his best track. He doesn’t necessarily need to win this weekend, but Johnson needs to prove to himself and the team that a poor start to the Chase is not indicative of what’s to come over the final eight races. This will be the perfect race to gauge where this team is at this point of the season. Johnson has won the last two Chase races at Dover and has a car that should finish in the top 5, no questions asked.

But if for some reason the No. 48 is not even a top 5 car this weekend, you can all but take Johnson’s name off of the list of championship contenders. This team has been so strong at this track for so long, that anything short of a top 5 finish could ultimately be the nail in the coffin. And given the fact that the Chase Dover race has been won by a Chase driver every year since the playoff format’s inception, anything outside of the top 5 will ultimately put Johnson in a bigger hole. I’m not saying if he wins Dover he’s instantly a favorite for another championship – he would simply survive to race another weekend – but if he struggles even in the least bit, it’s over.

Why the lack of attention on the Nationwide and Truck Series championship battles?

For all of the talk about the Chase and the tight Sprint Cup points battle, over in the Nationwide and Truck Series there are quite the championship battles of their own. With six races remaining in both series, the points battles are close enough that they should certainly be talked about more than there are. On the Nationwide side you have the young gun Ricky Stenhouse Jr. holding off the former Sprint Cup regular Elliott Sadler by a mere 14 points. One poor race by Stenhouse and even Reed Sorenson could get into the action, currently 47 points out. But even the Nationwide battle pales in comparison to the fight on the Truck Series side. Four drivers are currently within 25 points of the points lead, while future stars Austin Dillon and James Buescher are separated by a mere two points.

The Cup Series is bound to get most of the attention from the mainstream media because it’s obviously the biggest of the three series. But with a mere six races remaining, even fans who follow strictly Sprint Cup should be introduced to the likes of Stenhouse, Dillon, Buescher and Timothy Peters. These two series’ are having down to the wire battles without a Chase format and should be followed as closely as what’s happening on the Sprint Cup side. Cut down on all of the talk of fuel mileage racing, driver feuds and driver/media feuds and let’s talk about what matters most…racing, regardless of series.

Who is Sunday’s sleeper?

If it wasn’t for a one lap deduction at Chicagoland, Matt Kenseth would be right in the thick of this championship battle. The No. 17 team rebounded with a sixth place showing at New Hampshire and is back to within 26 points of the series lead. It’s a jumbled mess between fifth and tenth in the standings, but a solid finish by Kenseth would put him back solidly in the top 5. He’s had a strong first two races, won at Dover in May and averages just over a 12th place finish at the Monster Mile. Kenseth was widely considered a sleeper for the championship and was quickly dismissed after a rules infraction on the final lap at the Chase opener, ending a great day. Suddenly he’s creeping back, and with a good finish on Sunday he would be right in thick of the fight, going for a second championship.

Contact Mike Lovecchio

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09/30/2011 06:44 AM

The reason those close championship races in trucks and Nationwide aren’t getting the attention they deserve is bacause the majority of the races in those series have been won by Cup drivers. It’s hard to convince fans that drivers who usually finish behind however many Cup drivers in each race are the REAL champions of the series. When they steal the limelight and the wins, it takes away the ‘legitimacy’ of who wins the titles. A shame, because they deserve all the recognition they can get.

09/30/2011 11:59 AM

Is it unfeasible to have a fuel cell that lasts the entire race, which turns it into a race about tires?

Formula 1 does it and it seems to work alright. But I don’t know if a fuel cell could be big enough to last 500 or 600 miles.

Maybe competition cautions at halfway for fuel only?

Don Mei
09/30/2011 02:00 PM

How about cutting the race lengths down to decrease the boredom and utilize a fuel cell requiring one stop. Forget about the competition caution, the races are staged enough as it is.

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