Fuel conservation becomes recurring strategy for NASCAR teams

5 Jun

Jamie Squire/Getty Images for NASCAR

A NASCAR team takes many variables into account when choosing when its driver will come in for pit stops. But while a team can plan for different situations to the best of its ability, when you throw in 42 other cars and the cautions that go along with the interactions between those, everything gets much more interesting.

Gas – or rather a lack thereof – played a pivotal role in last week’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. led on the last lap but then ended up seventh because he ran out of fuel in the final stretch. Fuel also proved relevant on Sunday at Kansas Speedway. This time it worked more toward Earnhardt Jr.’s favor, as he finished second behind Brad Keselowski, who got his first win in 61 races.

Earnhardt Jr. qualified 28th for the STP 400, so even running 13th – his position on lap 134 – had required making up some serious ground, and Kansas is a track on which it is hard to get around other cars anyway. Midway through the race, Earnhardt Jr. spun out between turns three and four, which created a caution for laps 154-157.

“Starting where we did, it just wasn’t easy,” the popular No. 88 driver said. “And we finally got to right outside that top 10 and was looking good for the last 100 laps. And I went to searching for more speed and busted my butt up there on 3 and 4. And tossed us in all the spots we worked for all day.”

However, there was a silver lining to that incident; it put into use the savvy of Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte.

“[It] gave Steve the chance to play the strategy game … when that caution came out that we came and got fuel. We put ourselves in a one-stop scenario where everybody else didn’t pit. They can’t give up the track position because it’s so hard to pass,” Earnhardt Jr. explained. “So they stayed out there knowing they’d have to come down to pit road twice. And that was the game that we took, and the race  … could have had a caution and changed everybody’s strategy, but it worked out for us and right to the end.”

After the race, Earnhardt Jr. seemed less than enthusiastic about the finish. Although second place in the STP 400 puts him third in the overall Sprint Cup Series points standings, it was clear he viewed the runner-up spot as a bit of a letdown. He explained his frustration of having to slow down in order to have enough fuel to finish the race … even though he felt his car was fast enough to overtake Keselowski’s. Earnhardt Jr. recalled his conversation with Letarte.

“Man, he was telling me that whole run: ‘We’re good. Let Mike be short, we’re good, we’re fine.’ Then we got within 10 to go, and he said, ‘Back it down, back it down.'”

“I can catch the 2, he’s real slow,” Earnhardt Jr. indicated his response.

“And he’s like: Back it down, back it down, back it up to the 11.”

Letarte told Earnhardt Jr. the fuel would run out at the flag pole, and the driver followed his crew chief’s instructions. At the press conference, he confirmed that Letarte was right; the gauge was red and the No. 88’s tank was indeed empty coming down the back straightaway.

Fuel-influenced finishes generally aren’t preferable, but they are certainly part of the sport. As Keselowski’s crew chief Paul Wolfe pointed out, the fastest car doesn’t always win.

“Everything has to be perfect to win one of these races.So when I say the fastest car doesn’t always win, I mean you can have the fastest car, but if you don’t have good pit strategy or you don’t keep yourself out of trouble or put yourself in situations, it really doesn’t matter,” Wolfe said. “So what I’ve seen is if you can put yourself in the top 10, you give yourself a chance, at least. And we feel like that’s what we did today.”

Finishing behind Keselowski and Earnheardt Jr. were Denny Hamlin in third, Jeff Gordon in fourth and Carl Edwards in fifth. Keselowski’s teammate Kurt Busch finished ninth after leading 152 laps – over 120 more than any other driver – in the 267-lap race.

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