Winning on empty in a ‘fuel-mileage’ raceWritten by Dave Woolford | | email@example.com
In a battle to see who could go the slowest and still be fast enough to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) on June 14, moderate Mark Martin coasted to victory, leaving Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle frustrated and their respective cars fuming, which is what race cars do when they’re totally out of fuel.
It was another fuel-mileage race, the mention of which sends MIS track officials into a flat-out frenzy. There’s a perception that fuel-mileage races are won by those who are considered not to exhibit stereotypical masculine behavior. They supposedly separate the boys from the men. The fastest cars don’t have any particular advantage. The misguided thought process is speed rules; strategy sucks.
It was the second “fuel-mileage” race in the past three NASCAR Cup events at MIS, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. sniffing out victory last June.
Afterwards, Earnhardt quipped, “They can write what they want, but we won one.”
That’s what they wrote, Junior. No one called you a sissy, fluky or even intolerable.
Later he would say, “It is what it is.”
And it was what it was June 14 at MIS. With just more than one lap remaining, Johnson ran out of gas; Biffle shot into the lead and then he ran out of gas, and Martin had been very content in third. He was smelling not fumes but the sweet fragrance associated with leaping into the Top 12 in the point standings, those of whom will participate in the 10-race Chase for the championship to end the season.
Let’s not forget that the NASCAR Sprint Cup race contest previous to Michigan, at Pocono, Pa., was won by owner-driver Tony Stewart and it, too, was a fuel-mileage race. Imagine telling Stewart to slow down? He didn’t get the nickname “Smoke” by hoarding fuel. But he turned from mashing the gas to putting his best foot back just a tad. At the end, he had everyone worshiping at his feet.
Stewart’s crew chief, Darian Grubb, knew he had a car fast enough to win the race, but when fuel mileage became the issue, it was time to access the remainder of the field, try to figure out his counterpart’s strategy and then counter with his own.
“We had to have Tony back off and save as much fuel as we could,” Grubb explained. “There were a lot of guys in the same position. You’ve got to play the strategy against them.”
Jeff Gordon, who finished second at MIS on June 14, refused to say fuel-mileage races can’t be interesting for both fans and drivers.
“It’s a strategy. It’s tense. It’s hard not to put your foot all the way down to the floor on the straightaways,” he explained. “To me, it’s just as intense and difficult to win in a fuel-mileage race as it is to go out there and compete with the fastest car and try to pass for the lead.”
There’s no disrespect in winning a fuel-mileage race. MIS is concerned that it might get the reputation of being a fuel-mileage race course. Yes, you don’t want that, but consider this: Had the June 14 race not been thrown into a fuel-mileage situation, Johnson would have run off with, at least, a five-second win, and the term “boring” is much more distressing than, “fuel mileage.”
Junior’s triumph in June 2008 was very popular. What has NASCAR’s most popular driver done since? One victory in his past 113 races going into Sonoma, Calif., and that was at Michigan. Had he not won at MIS, the Junior Nation might now be the Junior Desolation.
You’ve heard of Pete Townshend, right? Me neither, at least not until recently when Kyle Busch did his impersonation of the guitarist from the English rock band, The Who.
Busch won the NASCAR Nationwide race at Nashville and was presented with a Gibson Les Paul guitar designed and painted by the renowned Sam Bass. Busch proceeded to smash the guitar on stage, a la Townshend, as Bass, Busch’s handlers and thousands of race car fans looked on in utter horror.
Busch said he wanted to have the remains cut into equal pieces and passed out as souvenirs to his crew members.
On June 14, at MIS, Busch was asked if he regretted his actions.
“Not really … made me think about it,” he responded. “In the end, I’m kind of like, you know what? No, I don’t regret it. I thought it was fun. It was fun, and a lot of people enjoyed it and thought it was different — sports not so vanilla. A lot of people hated it, and I guess those are the ones with 88 (Junior’s car number) tattooed on their arm. I’ve got no issues with Junior; it’s his fans that are crazy, but that’s all right.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will return to Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 25, where track officials are, by all accounts, taking turns praying hourly that Busch does not win the race, the trophy being probably the most sought-after in all of NASCAR racing. It’s a seven-foot-tall handcrafted Grandfather Clock, manufactured by Martinsville-based Ridgeway Clocks and valued at more than $11,000.
Busch has already said he would not break that trophy if he won it. If he does, time will stand still.