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 — a statement even bolder than Denny Hamlin’s perceived “called shot” and win a week earlier in New Hampshire.
Brad Keselowski led only 14 of 400 laps on Sunday, but 10 of those — the final 10 — 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.
“We slowly eked our way up from the 10th starting position up to fourth,” Keselowski said. “Kind 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.
“My 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.”
As with most races decided by fuel mileage, the best car wasn’t 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.
Johnson’s 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 Johnson’s 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.
“This fuel mileage game sucks,” a dejected Hamlin said. “All the hard work that you put in — drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps — and then it’s like you look up and wonder why we’re eighth. That part of it is frustrating, but it’s just some people have different strategies. Some people have better fuel mileage, but not as good of a handling racecar. I’ll take good-handling racecars and good horsepower any day.”
So it’s Keselowski, with a pair of wins and a sixth-place showing through three Chase races, that finds himself leading the pack. But he’s not willing to play the role of championship favorite just yet.
“I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this (Chase) battle is,” Keselowski said. “It’s very tempting, whether it’s the media or the teams themselves, to get in a comfort zone of saying, ‘Such and such has control of this Chase.’ But there’s a reason why it’s 10 rounds. We’re not even halfway. We’re three rounds in.
“By no means do I feel like we’re the favorite. Certainly we’re not the underdog probably at this point.
“My perspective is we got a lot more racing to go. Let’s just let the racing play out and go from there.”
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro