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One race does not make Stewart, Junior contenders…or does it?

By admin | September 19, 2011

By Richard Allen


Of the ten drivers to earn their way into the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship this season via the non-wildcard route, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were the last to be locked in. To be honest, both drivers struggled to make it with less than spectacular races to the cutoff and were assisted by the fact that none of their potential challengers was able to make a serious run toward the top-10.

It might have seemed as though both drivers were doing little more than filling spots in the Chase without a real chance to win the title.

However, Monday’s race at the Chicagoland Speedway proved that these two drivers and their teams do indeed have some life in them. Stewart earned his first win of the 2011 season when he beat the field to the checkered flag in the first playoff race. Not far behind, Junior rolled across the finish line with a 3rd place effort that proved to be his first top-5 result in fourteen weeks.

Before the many fans of these two drivers get overly excited, consider that the race ended with a fuel mileage stretch to the finish. Such races tend to often punish drivers who may have actually had the strongest cars during the day while rewarding those who may have run closer to the middle of the pack but happened to coast further than everyone else on the last drops of fuel in the tank.

In other words, fuel mileage races may not offer a true indication of strength of a race team.

So, Stewart and Junior can’t be considered real threats to win the championship, can they? Well, don’t count them, or anyone else, out even if the race was a fuel mileage stretch. Or rather, perhaps these two should actually be thought of as more of a serious threat because of the way the Chicago race ended.

Consider how many races this season have played out in the same manner as the Monday event. Seemingly, every week finds crew chiefs urging drivers to “save, save, save” in the final laps.

It would seem as though having the strongest car doesn’t matter nearly as much as being able to squeeze out the best gas mileage. Stewart and Earnhardt proved they have the new ‘what it takes to win’ factor going for them.

So don’t let the fact that these two drivers barely eked their way into the Chase remove them from contention. And it doesn’t matter that they have only one win and eight top-5s between them all season. Either one can win this championship as long as they can keep gas in the tank at the end of the day.

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7 Responses to “One race does not make Stewart, Junior contenders…or does it?”

  1. Charles Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Seems the Chevy RO7 engine is really shining again, has the advantage with fuel mileage and horsepower!

  2. Josie Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Whether it’s fuel mileage, cautions, missing wrecks, pit road problems, wrong strategy, driver error, or rain…a race is just not a straightforward punch the gas. Stewart and Junior had good cars they worked on all night and put themselves in position up front. The win goes to the team who manages all the obstacles the best which is not always the fastest racecar. That’s racing. Theres nothing more boring or less fun then watching one car out front the entire race. Like watching paint dry.

  3. Carl Watson Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Hey Charles, I did take the time to respond to your comment from a week ago over on that article about the Atlanta race. As a born and raised Ford man, I can’t say I much enjoyed being called a Chevy guy, but it’s all good. LOL :)

    As Rich accurately points out, these fuel mileage snooze fests tend to punish the drivers that were fastest, and reward the ones who were slower.

    In other words, many top finishers were the guys who were midpackers and off sequence.

    What is the alternative? A late race mystery caution to bunch up the field? We’ve had plenty of those as well, when it looked like someone was way out front and en route to a victory, and then folks complained about fake debris cautions.

    Of course if we weren’t running at a billion and one cookie cutter tracks, and the nimrods running the show hadn’t abandoned so many short tracks, we might have more cautions as a natural occurrence during an event that eliminate the fuel mileage races.

    But our sport is run by Brian France, a man who could manage to bring down the McDonald’s empire.

    I also see that we’re still on that Chevy thing. Ya know, Ryan Newman and Matt Borland won a lot of poles and a
    lot races on fuel mileage in those Penske DODGES some years back.

    It’s a numbers game Charles, Chevy just has more competitive teams with top drivers.

    Toyota only has one good team, with 2 strong drivers, one of which is way off this year, to the point where Kyle is practically driving for a single car team. Ford only has one decent team, with 2 maybe 3 strong drivers. The Dodge basket is pretty much 2 guys at Penske.

    Way too many teams concentrated in the hands of too few car owners, made worse since several teams are really just satellite teams. Tony drives for Hendrick, we’ll call a spade a spade, just as Yates was a (lackluster) satellite team for Roush.

  4. Carl Watson Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 11:07 am

    @ Charles - I gotta say this cause I’ll feel bad until I do, but I sincerely apologize for the first paragraph of that comment up there. I am sorry. As someone who grew up on Fords, I meant that to be in a more light hearted, jovial manner, but messed that up. My bad. :(

    @Josie - I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said, and I enjoy an occasional fuel mileage race because of the added strategy elements it brings to the table.

    It’s just that this year it’s become so common (again), which is where, speaking for myself here, I find it’s become boring. Oh well… they can’t all be barn stormers like Craven vs Busch at Darlington.

  5. Kevin Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Just wanted to point out that not everyone was thinking/driving based on fuel mileage that last run. Everyone but Truex had the same amount of fuel when the last run started, so everyone should have had the same amount. The guys who finished in the top 3 ran harder for longer than anyone else who ran out of fuel.

    That being said, the simple soloution to the fuel mileage race is for Goodyear to bring a tire to the track that won’t last for a full fuel mileage run. If the cars can go 50 laps on fuel, have the tires last for 40 laps and give up 3 seconds a lap when they get to that point. If you can pick up 3 seconds a lap by getting tires, than everyone is going to pit by lap 40. Fuel mileage doesn’t come into it equation then.
    I realize it isn’t quite that simple for Goodyear. Because of the configuration of the car that we’re using is super hard on the right front tire. As a result, Goodyear has a tough time developing a compound that is soft enough to give up 3 seconds a lap, but durable enough that it won’t blow out and cause safety concerns.
    I have a hard time believing that with the technology we have available today that Goodyear couldn’t come up with something if they were told to.
    I think Goodyear has had run of the system long enough now. I understand that one company was awarded the tire contract as a result of needing consistency, but I think the product has suffered as a result of a lack of competition.
    I believe that NASCAR needs to hold open competions during the off season - Invite Bridgestone, Pirelli, Goodyear, Firestone, Hoosier and whoever else to compete. Go to multiple tracks, with different conditions and surfaces, and pick the company that has their stuff together the best. They get a one year contract, then everyone else has the opportunity to make their stuff better for next year.

  6. david Says:
    September 20th, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Hey Kevin…. WOW on the tire competition. I sure hope the right people “think” of that too!!!

  7. Carl Watson Says:
    September 21st, 2011 at 1:50 am

    @ Kevin - 100% agree on the tire issue.

    I understand the need for a more durable compound, because no one wants some of the massive tire debacles we saw in years past, but the tires last way too long without much falloff. If they can win on fuel racing, they’re going to, it’s their job to succeed however they can given the conditions presented to them.

    ..and it’s a condition that all teams equally face.

    However, NASCAR is married to Goodyear, pretty much, so while your suggestion is reasonable, thoughtful, and practical, this is NASCAR we’re dealing with…