Fuel mileage, strategy, pay off for Keselowski, Penske Racing
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is only three races into its 10-race Chase for the Championship playoff stint. And thus far, three drivers seem to have separated themselves from the field.
One made a major statement in the AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway â a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlinâs perceived âcalled shotâ and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those â the final 10 â were the most important of the day.
Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe executed a late-race fuel run to perfection, going the final 89 laps on a single tank of gas, outsmarting and outperforming Chase rivals Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, to score their second win in three playoff events.
âWe slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,â Keselowski said. âKind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth, and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution.
âMy guys did that. They did a great job. Together we were able to manage it (fuel mileage) very well, which is important as anything else in racing these days.â
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasnât the one that completed the scheduled distance first. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (302 laps led) and Hamlin (39), along with Johnson (43), were the unquestioned class of the field. However, as the laps wound down, all three realized a decision must be made: Run all-out and pit for fuel late, hoping for a caution flag, or slow down, conserve gas and settle for whatever respectable finish they could muster.
The Gibbs teams chose the former, as Busch pitted from the lead with 11 circuits remaining. That handed the lead to Hamlin, who hit pit road one lap later.
Johnsonâs strategy had kicked in much earlier. Leading the race with 40 laps remaining, crew chief Chad Knaus radioed the driver that they would not make it to the end running their current pace. Johnson gave up the lead to Busch and peddled the car down the stretch.
Enter Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team, a bunch adept at stretching a tank of gas. Running a steady fourth with enough in the tank, they simply waited for others to make a mistake (Busch and Hamlin) or settle (Johnson).
Inheriting the lead on lap 391, Keselowski held off a charging Jeff Gordon to score his fifth win of the 2012 season and into the points lead.
Mark Martin was third, while Johnsonâs fuel-saving gamble worked to the tune of a fourth-place run. Carl Edwards was fifth.
Busch finished one lap down in seventh while Hamlin was eighth.
âThis fuel mileage game sucks,â a dejected Hamlin said. âAll the hard work that you put in â drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps â and then itâs like you look up and wonder why weâre eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but itâs just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. Iâll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.â
So itâs Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But heâs not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
âI canât state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,â Keselowski said. âItâs very tempting, whether itâs the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, âSuch and such has control of this Chase.â But thereâs a reason why itâs 10 rounds. Weâre not even halfway. Weâre three rounds in.
âBy no means do I feel like weâre the favorite. Certainly weâre not the underdog probably at this point.
âMy perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Letâs just let the racing play out and go from there.â
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro