/ NASCAR / FUEL MILEAGE RACING
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in
2011 have often been decided by
who doesn’t “stand on the gas.”
Words Tom Jensen Main Image Brian Czobat/LAT
The numbers are startling: Through the first 31 NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the driver leading the most laps in each race has won just 10 times. In seven of those races, the
winning driver has led fewer than 10 laps.
Typically in NASCAR, the fastest car wins about half the
races, but that certainly hasn’t been the case this year, not
by a long shot. At first blush, fuel mileage appears to be the
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel on the last lap of the
Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race, handing the victory to
Kevin Harvick. The next weekend in Kansas, Brad Keselowski
managed to stretch his last tank of gas while Penske Racing
teammate and leader Kurt Busch didn’t. Keselowski led just
nine laps and won the race, while Busch led 152 of 267 laps but
finished ninth after having to make a late-race splash ’n’ dash.
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth both ran out of fuel on
the last lap in the opening race of the Chase at Chicagoland
Speedway, gaffes which ultimately may cost each man the 2011
NASCAR championship. The next week, Tony Stewart won at
New Hampshire by leading only the final two laps of the race,
after Clint Bowyer ran out of fuel.
What in the name of Sunoco 260 is going on here?
Well, as it turns out, the real root cause for all the sturm und
drang at the end of NASCAR races this year isn’t fuel mileage at
all. It’s tires. Go back to the 2008 Brickyard 400 and the terrible
tire debacle where cars couldn’t run more than 12 laps without
blowing tires. That race, one of the most embarrassing in
NASCAR history, caused Goodyear to rethink and redesign its
racing tires so they would still have adequate grip but
significantly less wear. Goodyear has succeeded in its quest,
but the more durable tires have failed far less often this year,
Slick pit stops are as vital as ever, but in 2011, there are fewer of them, and that’s increased the importance of drivers achieving decent gas mileage.