“I think I ran me out of fuel.”
Yes, Tony, yes you did.
If Tony Stewart loses the Chase with a deficit decided by Sunday’s race, that day will turn into a tragic disaster, a huge blemish on the record of a possible three-time champion.
But if Stewart recovers to win this year’s title, he and crew chief Darian Grubb will be praised for their guts in going for the win in the first race of the Chase at New Hampshire.
At the moment, the latter scenario seems unlikely at best. So while yes, Clint Bowyer made it on fuel, Stewart’s tank running dry is more influential to the potential strategy of Chasers over the next nine races if any of those turn into a fuel-mileage race.
Had Stewart and Jeff Burton not run out of gas, it would have been possible that we’d see more gambles to the end amongst Chasers. But since two of the three drivers ran out, you can bet that playoff drivers are going to play it safe given the huge hit Stewart took.
Just take a look at the standings for proof. Stewart lost 23 spots and 94 points running out of gas on the final lap, leaving him 11th, 124 out of the lead in the Chase with nine races left. That’s a huge risk to have blow up in your face, one that Bowyer and crew chief Shane Wilson knew they were also taking when they didn’t pit. Wilson even said that he wasn’t sure he’d do it again if faced with the same situation at Dover, even if he laughed as he said it.
“So we came in the 12th seed, and we talked about it before the race. It’s going to allow us to race a lot looser than some people,” Wilson said. “Now, going to Dover in second, I don’t know if I’ll make that call or not.”
Of course, Bowyer responded that he hoped Wilson would, but that’s because he won the race. Had he been in Stewart’s position, it’s doubtful that he’d be feeling the same way. Albeit significant, Burton’s hit was minimized somewhat because he ran out of gas on the backstretch. After a pit stop, Burton finished 15th, nine spots ahead of Stewart and 11 behind where he would have finished had he made it to the end on fuel.
The last dramatic fuel-mileage race in the Chase happened in 2008, when Carl Edwards coasted to the finish line at Texas. However, Edwards was in a position of desperation despite his excellent year. It was late enough in the season that a bad finish would only seal his fate and a victory could create a manageable deficit, because Edwards entered that Texas race 183 points behind Jimmie Johnson.
The 2006 race at Kansas came down to fuel mileage, but because of its early position in the Chase, most Chasers played it safe and got gas. Oddly enough, Stewart won that race as he ran out of fuel on the backstretch, but he had nothing to lose that year. He was out of the Chase and didn’t have to worry about points racing for a championship.
The argument can be made that Bowyer, Burton and Stewart all went for it because New Hampshire was the first race of the Chase, and 124 points over nine races isn’t nearly as daunting as 124 points with two races to go. Of course, someone in Edwards’s position could try to gamble at Texas or Phoenix, but a Hail Mary in the fourth quarter is considerably different than one on fourth down on the middle of the first quarter.
Given the perceived closeness of the Chase field, chances like the one that the three took could go a long way to deciding the champion. However, given the bad results that arose for two of the three, expect there to be far fewer chances taken over the next five or six weeks.