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.”
With the game changed so radically, more than ever, the pressure falls on three parties: 1) The driver, to save as much fuel as possible; 2) the pit crew, to nail stops perfectly, especially the last one; and, 3) the crew chief to be spot on in terms of strategy – gas only? Two-tire change? Four tires?
There are only a couple of ways to change fuel mileage significantly: adjust the carburetor setting to run a leaner mixture is one. For the driver, it's letting off the gas early and coasting through corners, sometimes even shutting the engine off entirely, though that can be risky business. And the simple expedient of slowing down a little saves fuel, although obviously it carries with it the risk of getting passed.
“There are tricks that the drivers do to save fuel,” says Carl Edwards of Roush Fenway Racing. “Everybody has their own tricks, I'm sure, and I'm not gonna tell you any of mine! But I think they work.”
“I don't care how hard you try, what your technique is,” says four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “You can only save so much. You've got to have pretty decent fuel mileage to begin with to push the limits. It is a number of factors – it's getting the fuel cell full on the stop, not having any error and then it's being smooth as a driver and then whether it is declutching, shutting off the engine, or just backing the corner up and slowing the pace down. There are a lot of different ways that you can go about it. One of the things we are doing now is when we go test, we try out all those things to see which one works best.”
Even the drivers who get good fuel mileage hate racing that way.
“I've lost a lot more races like that than I've won,” says Stewart, who ran out of gas near the end of the fall 2010 New Hampshire race and lost it, yet won it a year later when Bowyer ran out. “To be in a situation where your speed is dictated by the guy behind you and not by what you can do…it's a different style of racing. It's just as tough, if not tougher, than trying to run 100 percent.”
And it can also strain relationships between a team's principal players, the driver and crew chief.
“It's a battle,” admits Stewart. “The crew chief is yelling at you every lap to save fuel, but you're not slowing down enough and he knows it because he's looking at the stopwatch.”
“It's frustrating because it's totally out of your control,” says Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle. “To a driver, it feels like all of your effort, all of your hard work, all of your experience, all of your knowledge, all of your precision on the racetrack, all of your pit stops – everything that you've worked at forever – means nothing, technically. If you don't have that one piece, excellent fuel mileage, it doesn't matter because it's all in vain.”
For better or worse, the game of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is very different this year. Paul Wolfe, crew chief of the red-hot Brad Keselowski observes, “It's not always about having fast racecars now.” So can anything be done to end the fuel-mileage parade? Maybe, maybe not.
“In the future, I would like to see tires that we run fast for a lap or two, but then drop off tremendously,” says Hamlin. “It forces us to come in and take tires and then these races are not going to be won on some sort of fuel strategy or some kind of gamble in the pits. I like that part of it. It's all part of racing and I understand that, but you like to see fast cars win races.”
“Here's the thing,” says Gordon. “It all just comes down to cautions. It's just when the caution falls. It doesn't matter if you have a five-gallon fuel cell or a 55-gallon fuel cell, if the caution doesn't come out, it's a fuel-mileage race. That's what we need to go back and look at.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the December 2011 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.