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 deciding factor.
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 (ABOVE) 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, which has meant dramatically fewer cautions. And that, in turn, has meant more races decided on fuel mileage.
Through the first 30 Sprint Cup races of this year, there have been a total of 222 caution-flag periods. That's down sharply from 268 in 2008 and 307 in 2005.
“The major factor in the lack of cautions is Goodyear has done a much better job this year and we're not having guys blow right-front tires, at the start, middle or end of the race,” says Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. “I think, at the same time, from a reliability standpoint, people's engine packages have gotten better. We're seeing engine failures much fewer and farther between than we ever did.”
Of course, racers being racers, some think the new-generation tires are actually too good.
“Honestly, the tires are better,” says Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I know that's what Goodyear wants and what NASCAR wants and drivers want as far as safety is concerned, but nowadays drivers don't pay any price for overdriving a racecar. This year, guys are driving corner entry way harder than what they should be allowed to and I think that is some of the reason why you see some of the more successful drivers and new drivers winning this year. Drivers like Mark Martin, who you've seen for years and years being so good at saving his equipment, don't have as big of an advantage anymore because the tires are so much better.”
Clearly, this precipitous change has hurt some and helped others. The biggest loser is Jimmie Johnson. In the Chase opener at Chicagoland, “Five-Time” gambled on fuel mileage and lost, running dry on the last lap and finishing 18th instead of second or third. Then, a call for four tires instead of two buried Johnson midpack in the closing stages of the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. With just 18 laps to go, Johnson made an ill-advised banzai pass attempt on Newman for seventh place. Instead, he crashed and finished 34th.
“We had a risk-reward thought process,” says Johnson, “but it's just changed. I mean, there's a lot more risk taking place at the end of the race and trying to stretch fuel mileage and worrying about changing two tires versus four, so the game has changed there and I don't think we were on top of that change as much as we have been in the past.”