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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Fuel-Mileage Finishes Adding Fuel to Fans’ Fire?

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% – 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.

“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% or 60% 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?

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)