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COLUMN: It's A Brave New World Of Sprint Cup Series Racing At New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Sunday, July 17, 2011
Photo: Getty Images/NASCAR

LOUDON, N.H. – Think "Fuel Mileage" and tracks such as Michigan International Speedway or Auto Club Speedway come immediately to mind. They're big, sweeping ovals where horsepower is critical to success and car-to-car combat is minimized.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, once known as a drivers' choice for retaliatory performances, has joined that list. For the second consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the track, fuel mileage and pit strategy determined the difference between winning and losing.

Ryan Newman led the final 72 laps Sunday to post his first victory of the season and lead a 1-2 finish for Stewart Haas Racing as drivers throughout the field wrestled with fuel strategy in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.

Some – like Newman – were trying to stretch their fuel more than 80 laps. Some snuck in under the race's final caution to top off their tanks, hoping those trying to go the distance would run out. Still others seemed resigned to simply taking what had been given them, regardless of what others were up to.

Last September at New Hampshire, Tony Stewart ran out of gas while leading at the end, handing victory to Clint Bowyer. There was the strong likelihood that the same thing would happen Sunday to Newman – who ran out of gas heading to Victory Lane – this time around, too.

But isn't this New Hampshire? Isn't this about short-track racing on one of the tightest tracks on the circuit?

Not so fast.

 

"I don't know why it's a fuel mileage deal," said Tony Gibson, Newman's crew chief. "Maybe the tires are better. The tires don't give up as much as they used to give up, so you can stay out longer. You're not giving up a lot of time staying out on fuel.

"A lot of these tracks, it's dictated by the tire more than anything."

It wasn't all that many years ago that the story lines for New Hampshire had more to do with extra-curricular activities than strategy atop the pit boxes. This is where Robbie Gordon once stood on the backstretch and tossed a helmet in the direction of Michael Waltrip's ride; where Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch put on a display of intentional wrecking usually reserved for the Bowman Gray Stadiums of the world.

Apparently, not any more.

"This is a pretty easy track to save fuel on in all reality, because you really have to use a lot of brake but it's got long, sweeping corners so you coast a lot through the center of the corner," said Stewart, who finished second. "It does give you an opportunity to save fuel pretty easy."

Ironically, that wasn't want Denny Hamlin radioed to crew chief Mike Ford during the late stages of the race. He said quite the opposite, in fact.

Hamlin pointed out that with cars running such similar speeds, there wasn't a lot of opportunity to back off the gas early without risking a trailing car running into the back of you.

"It's just risk-versus-reward racing with these fuel mileage things," Hamlin said. "As bad as I wanted to go up there and race those guys, I had to make the smart move and finish the race."

It appears to be more about crew chiefs playing not to lose races than trying to win them.

"It forces you to do things you normally wouldn't do," Gibson said. "Somebody is going to stay out and roll the dice on fuel mileage and win it. (Newman), he's on me all the time. He's, 'Dude, we're going to have to grow some here and win a race.'

"The way to win it is to stay out."

Joey Logano, who claimed this race as a rookie in 2009 when he gambled and won a rain-shortened event, said that strategy was key to his fourth-place finish.

"Strategy was everything, and you didn't always know where you were running because at one point you were running 25th and the next minute you were running second," Logano said. "So you had no idea what's going on."

Logano certainly wasn't alone. As with most every fuel mileage race, teams were competing against themselves as much as they were against other cars on the track.

Several drivers – including Montoya, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Regan Smith – ran out of fuel in the final few laps and saw good runs negated.

"I was saving quite a big (amount), or just as much as I could," Newman said. "Luckily, we had that lead and luckily it stayed green or it would have been a green-white-checkered situation, and we wouldn't have been able to make it.

"Tony Gibson made a gutsy call, and it paid off."

A gutsy call.

At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, of all places.

– TB