The Frontstretch: Fuel Mileage Finishes Adding Fuel To Fan's Fire? by Thomas Bowles -- Monday November 9, 2009

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Fuel Mileage Finishes Adding Fuel To Fan's Fire?

Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday November 9, 2009


While younger brother Kyle flashed some speed, it was older brother Kurt who showed his smarts Sunday at Texas. Leading 232 of the first 332 laps, the younger brother was in position to pull off the first ever “triple sweep” – winning Truck, Nationwide, and Cup shows at the same track in the same weekend – with a car that looked capable of lapping the field at times during the race.

But in the end, speed was no match for strategy at Texas during a final 122-lap stint run under green flag conditions. For no matter how fast Kyle went, raw speed was no match for … more fuel.

Sound a little weird? It’s meant to. Running out of gas is a part of racing, but never has it played more of a role in the sport than within the last 2-3 years. Sunday was the second straight Fall race at Texas where fuel mileage made the difference, with Kurt’s gas tank outlasting Kyle’s to give the No. 2 car the win when the No. 18 conked out with less than two laps left. Last year, Carl Edwards went even further than either of the Busch brothers could manage this year (65 laps) in jumpstarting what’s become a bit of a pit strategy craze at Sprint Cup’s top level. By my unofficial count, it’s the sixth event out of 34 this year – a whopping 17.6 percent – where the trophy went to the car that stretched a little extra Sunoco when it counted.

Now, don’t get me wrong … a little fuel-injected finish every now and then is good for a sport that thrives on unpredictability. But when once in a blue moon turns into about once every six races, that’s enough of a pattern to change both the style and quality of racing. Especially on a day where one car’s dominating out front (something that’s been the norm and not the exception in this 2009 season to forget), the race to win gets thrown from the drivers’ hands, to … well … a bunch of dorky engineers with calculators. And on this day, young Kyle was so much better on speed Kurt Busch’s crew chief Pat Tryson was ordering his driver to save fuel from as early as 120 laps to go. That’s right … they were so desperate to find any way to catch the No. 18, they were taking it easy and tiptoeing around the racetrack for the final third of this race in order to come out on top.

Kyle Busch might have had the better car on Sunday, but in the end when it counted it was Kurt out front and headed to Victory Lane.

“Yeah, it was pretty much made the stop before the last one,” he admitted when he told Busch to focus on feathering the throttle instead of flooring it. “You know, you’re sitting there figuring if it stays green, how far you can go. We had to stretch it a little bit that first run. I think we picked up just about everything we had in the cell.”

There’s just one problem: race fans aren’t necessarily in attendance to watch ballet. For the mathematics majors out there, I’m sure those numbers are fascinating. But sitting there watching a gas gauge go from F to E, while cars run around at less than full speed, has a tendency to prove tedious when done too much. It’s passing for the lead that fans and drivers are looking to love, side-by-side duels that keep the cars on edge, the outcome in question, and a reminder of just how challenging this racing stuff really is.

But in a series where copycatting has always been the name of the game, can you really blame all these teams for turning their cars into a bunch of turtles slopping around just trying to stretch their fuel? With the CoT, the aero push has made passing anywhere from difficult to impossible after restarts. That puts teams in a box as to how they’re going to move up through the field, especially since that aerodynamic edge helps the leader check out faster than you can blink your eyes. So if you’re not that car in clean air on intermediates, you have to think of different ways to win — and one of the easiest ways to do it is to hold off on making a pit stop longer than everybody else. After all, there’s no way to impede your forward progress if your closest competitor is sitting stopped off the track.

“It’s definitely challenging in all aspects,” Busch said of having a racer’s inner aggression funneled down into fuel conservation mode. “You have to make sure when you’re letting off the throttle that you do it a proper way, or when you pick up the throttle you’re doing it a proper way. Maybe there isn’t the right way to do it, other than I worked with my dad back racing cars at an entry level. We had to take care of our equipment. We had to race it for what it was worth, ginger it, make it to where it could be brought back next week.”

While Busch certainly learned his lesson well, reading that just makes me realize how much this sport has changed on its highest levels. Risk used to be figuring out whether you could go three-abreast down the straightaway without hitting the wall. Now? It’s whether you can drive at 55 percent or 60 percent effort according to the engineers and their strategy decisions. Sometimes, that’s just how the race plays out – but what if it gets to the point where that’s how entire races are designed from the get go?

With that said, I don’t want to take away from what Busch, Roger Penske, and their program did from stealing one from under Kyle Busch’s nose this Sunday. What’s been done with a “lame duck” crew chief, a program that just replaced one of their three drivers, and a Dodge Charger seemingly behind the other makes is nothing short of impressive. It’s not their fault the best philosophy in these situations continues to be “slow and steady wins the race.” But wasn’t that supposed to apply to marathons and not stock cars?

I’ll tell you one thing … there’s a reason they don’t televise 36 marathons on national television. It’s the type of sport where you can only watch runners pace themselves for so long. In stock cars, the same principle applies, as while saving fuel might be tough to think about it’s even tougher to watch … especially when stretched over not one but two green flag cycles.

So how do you fix it? On a day when Kyle Busch checks out on the field, the answers are few and far between right now. I understand the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” philosophy as well … if NASCAR had thrown a “mystery debris” caution with 20 laps remaining, that’s all critics would be talking about the following day instead of the race to the finish. Sometimes, fuel mileage is the way the ball bounces, whether you like it or not. But the fact that it’s been bouncing back around this much is a sign to me of how little confidence crew chiefs have that a bad-handling car can be made a contender to win on speed alone.

All I know was Sunday proved a fantastic opportunity, a time to inject excitement in a mediocre Chase after Jimmie Johnson’s Lap 3 crash. Instead, that was wasted amidst an ugly truth, that Johnson’s wreck couldn’t change the “passing at a premium” problem – and until that changes, the type of racing you’ll see will be based more on strategy than speed.

But here’s the literally billion dollar question to the long-term viability of the sport: is that the type of finish you really want to see?

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Today on the Frontstretch:
NASCAR Easter Eggs: A Few Off-Week Nuggets to Chew On
Five Points To Ponder: NASCAR’s Take-A-Breath Moment
Truckin’ Thursdays: Top Five All-Time Truck Series Drivers
Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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11/09/2009 03:22 AM

I bet they would of been happy if Junior won. You cant please anybody these days. Thats just part of it. Fuel milage used to play big in NASCAR but these “New Breed Fans” dont know a thing about that. It makes it interesting to say the least but they are hard to watch live trying to figure out who is leading and who is pitting

11/09/2009 06:35 AM

I may be wrong but didn’t NASCAR move to a smaller fuel cell not too long ago? I think that might be part of the problem. I hate fuel mileage finishes, but it’s part of the game.

The Old Guy
11/09/2009 06:44 AM

Maybe NASCAR should bring back the 22 Gal Fuel Cell.

11/09/2009 09:04 AM

The 22 gal.cell would be a good thing.

11/09/2009 11:32 AM

It looks like I’m in the minority based on the poll, but I like fuel mileage finishes. They’re a heck of a lot more exciting than a lot of other finishes we see. The various strategies are very exciting for me to watch. When Kurt took the white flag, any one of about 5 or 6 guys still could have won that race depending on who had saved enough. How often does that happen in a normal race?

The smaller fuel cell is definitely the culprit. Mathematically, the less fuel you have, the more likely a fuel mileage race is.

The Turnip!
11/09/2009 12:21 PM

Doesn’t it seem that all the stars are finally aligning when it come’s to NA$CRAP?

Boring races!

Terrible accidents!

Fuel economy runs!

Single file “racing”!

TV commentators remarking about how boring the races are!

Non-chase cars taking out chase cars!

King Brian admitting even he does not watch all the races!

And the list goes on!

It appears to me, that once and for all, ALL the bad aspects of NA$CRAP are coming together, week in, week, out!

Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch!

11/09/2009 01:33 PM

Some fuel mileage races add some variety to the schedule, much like the short tracks and road courses. It’s nice to see drivers who can do more than just mash the gas the whole time. It’s also nice in that it forces teams to build engines which are not only fast, but efficient.

Since the drivers no longer race cars that resemble what we drive, we can’t relate to them on the cars themselves, but we can relate to trying to save fuel, to making the tank last another commute before we have to tank up. Granted, I’d rather they race recognizable cars, but what can we do about that?

If there isn’t going to be a close battle for the lead, I think a fuel mileage race is far more exciting (and legit!) than a late yellow to bunch up the field besides.

And lastly, Tom, watch what you write… we engineers are race fans, too!

11/09/2009 04:50 PM

Yes folks. This fuel milage stuff starting getting worse when cash$car went from a 22 gallon fuel cell to a 17 gallon fuel cell. Never understood it then. Still don’t understand it. Didn’t watch much of race. Watched football for the 6th week in a row. Checked at commercial and found out Johnson had wrecked. Didn’t care. Switched back to football. Brain fart has ruined the sport. With Mike Helton his right hand man. Stick a fork i n it.

Managing Editor
11/09/2009 06:44 PM

Sorry ‘bout that, RamblinWreck! Just fellow dorks making fun of fellow dorks :O)

Dans Mom
11/09/2009 06:57 PM

Yet, had NASCAR thrown a “debris” caution and allowed the cars to refuel….

I think this goes to the argument that if NASCAR raced STOCK cars – teams would have to factor in fuel economy when choosing which manufacturer to run.

ALSO – this would make manufacturers work for better fuel economy decreasing our financial burden as average consumers.

Race STOCK cars, make the cars we driver safer, better handling, more fuel efficient, more aerodynamic and let us relate to what we see on Sundays.

Of course…. the tires would still suck.

11/09/2009 07:02 PM

Well, as the only Kyle Busch fan on this site, I have to point out that Kurt didn’t necessarily drive smarter than Kyle; he made his last pit stop two laps after Kyle made what he hoped would be his last. So was it crew chief error – could Kyle have gone 2 laps further on the previous run? Nobody has asked and nobody has told. Seems like some hotshot in the media could have asked Kyle’s crew chief that question. But, in any event, I hope this is a sign of things to come for next year – Kyle dominating. I know y’all would love to see that!

11/09/2009 07:20 PM

With six laps left in the 334-lap event, McGrew called Earnhardt down pit road for a quick splash of fuel. Unfortunately, as Earnhardt was making his way down pit road, he radioed to his team that he had run out of fuel. He managed to pull the No. 88 Chevy into his pit stall, but struggled to refire the engine after the fuel stop. Earnhardt finally rejoined the field and was scored 25th.”

…with all the money Jr. is bringing into HMS they can hire a top tier crew chief for him, like Addington, and pay him what he deserves…
I find it odd that the whole way through the race, Jr. was one of the first called into the pits for green pit stops. On this last stop Mark and then Jeff were both called in before him. Finally Jr. was called in, very late. It almost seems that it was deliberate to run him out of gas…? He ran in the top ten and top five all day and would have finished there. Mark finished 5th. I sure hope and pray that Jr. can get out that rat’s nest and the sooner the better. Last spring Nascar Now started reporting that Tony Jr. was still making Jr.‘s cars by DEI specs from 2007 when he left. They have finally given him a car with speed and now he is running out of gas…? Marybeth

11/09/2009 08:09 PM

OK, yes it came down to fuel mileage but it’s not like Kurt wasn’t a contendor – he was the ONLY other contendor for the win. He was in 1st or 2nd the entire day. Pitting 2 laps after every one else gave them the chance to pull it off.
And once lead lap cars started pulling off at the end NASCAR had its hands tied as far as throwing the mystery caution. They would have put a lot of cars a lap down and then the Busch Bros would have pitted under yellow and stayed the only ones on the lead lap.
You guys make it sound like the 2 ran in 25th all day and then pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Give Kurt credit – he ran in the top 2 all day AND had good pit strategy.


11/10/2009 12:46 PM

Marybeth – Mark and Jeff had a lot more to lose if they hadn’t pitted. Mark, especially, after the good run he’d had all day—look back to Michigan where he gambled and lost. He couldn’t afford the gamble. Jr could, though. He had absolutely nothing to lose with the kind of year he’s had, so he might as well try to go for it!

11/10/2009 07:27 PM

Its articles like this that drive me nuts. You guys spend all that time writing articles on the presence of mystery cautions (which are the biggest menace to the sport in my opinion) yet now you write an article that sort of implies a mystery caution should have been thrown at the end of the race to negate the the fuel mileage deal. It is what it is, fuel mileage finishes have been as present now as they ever has been.

Saying there’s been more fuel mileage finishes in recent years is like saying there’s been more rain-affected finishes; both are true and both are just another part of the sport that one must put up with. I personally like fuel mileage finishes for the sole fact that its essentially the only way in today’s NASCAR for an underdog to win outside of a plate race. And its certainly better than throwing a bogus caution.

11/10/2009 08:18 PM

Kevin, Jr. had a chance for a top ten or top five, he had asked to pit 10 laps earlier and they told him “No”. Boris Said asked on Nascar Now, why they ran Jr. out of gas…and he did not get an answer. Marybeth


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