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The cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series don’t have gas gauges, don’t have low-fuel lights, and definitely don’t have those little buttons that tells how many miles are left until the gas tank is empty. So when a race has a caution flag fly at just the right (or wrong) time, it can set the stage for a very interesting ending.
That’s what happened in the Sept. 30 “AAA 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway, the story of which was written mostly by two caution flags – the first and the last. The last one ended up tying a huge knot in the fuel plans of various teams, and when it was all done, Brad Keselowski had his first-ever NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at Dover and took the lead in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson – all who led at one point – had to settle for lower positions because they had to either get gas or drive to conserve it.
The caution in question came on lap 317 when Matt Kenseth spun, and it brought everyone into the pits. But it had them there with roughly 80 laps remaining – whereas the typical window for fuel at Dover is roughly 70 laps, which left crew chiefs consulting everything available to them short of a slide rule in order to figure out if their cars could make it on fuel.
For some teams, it was clear-cut. Johnson was instructed to back off to about 80 percent for the last 40 laps, which resulted in Keselowski, Busch, Hamlin and others driving on by. Although Busch was leading the race with 32 laps remaining, he was told at that point that he didn’t have enough fuel to make it. He was still ahead with 11 laps to go when he finally had to succumb to the call of the fuel can. That left the lead to Hamlin, but two laps later, he had to do the same thing.
While all this was happening, Keselowski chose to stay out. Some furious operation of laptops on his pit box had told crew chief Paul Wolfe that they had a chance to make it to the end of the race. But he needed some help from his driver to get there.
“I knew we were close, but I’m also confident in Brad’s ability to save,” Wolfe said. “I know he was working on that some when he was behind [Johnson] and I knew what number we had to go to full save. Definitely I was nervous, I don’t know who wouldn’t be – it’s a big race and a big win. We saw the opportunity to go for it.”
Fortunately for Keselowski, Wolfe was right, because coming fast on his tail were Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin – neither of which had any sort of fuel problem whatsoever. For a moment, it appeared there might be a closing battle that took fans back to the 1990s when Gordon and Martin had semi-permanent homes in Dover’s Sunoco Victory Lane.
“[Keselowski] made it, we just got a little too tight at the end,” Gordon said. “I thought it was going to be a race between me and Mark. We knew it could come down to a fuel mileage race and I knew we had enough fuel like [Martin] did.”
When Keselowski looked back, he realized he’d run the final 89 laps of the race on one tank of gas. But he was reluctant to take full credit for it.
“A lot of it’s on the team,” he said. “It sounds great to give the credit to the driver, but the engine and the strategy make it all work as well, so you have to keep it in the context of team. It’s how you come together as a team, and everybody can contribute [a little bit] and when you stack some pennies you have a dollar. I think everybody’s on the same page as far as the two teams are concerned.”
As for Busch and Hamlin, the two combined to lead 341 laps – 309 of which were Busch – but they finished seventh and eighth, respectively. The two Toyota cars had been the fastest all weekend long, but in the end, it was fuel mileage that tripped them up. Hamlin did nothing but stand and stare at his car for a while after the race, while Busch’s reaction was much more animated over the radio afterwards.
For as much as the final caution played a role in the end of the race, it would have been a completely different race altogether if it wasn’t for the way the first caution happened. The race was proceeding nicely through its first 65 laps when cars started to make green-flag pit stops at their prescribed times.
Then the right front tire exploded on J.J. Yeley’s car and, in doing so, blasted away the race plans for the majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams. It happened at the end of that round of green-flag stops, and when NASCAR finally got to the bottom of sorting things out, they found that only eight cars remained on the lead lap. Only six cars were on the lead lap at the end of the race – something that hadn’t happened at Dover since 2008. In the last eight races at Dover, no fewer than 13 cars had finished on the lead lap.
One driver that was able to recover from that was Martin, who found himself two laps down afterwards.
“I don’t know with all the show that was going on if anybody really noticed or not, but we had a rocket ship,” Martin said. “We were just passing cars left and right. It was great on restarts. We were making our way up from a deep in the pack qualifying spot and just about to get in the race, pitted under the green, and as soon as we came back out the caution came out and trapped us two laps down. So we had to continue to fight from being buried and eventually got ourselves into the hunt.”
Johnson finished fourth and like Keselowski, maintained his position in an unconventional fashion – by driving slower. In doing so, he missed out on what would have been a record eighth win at Dover, but he left himself in good position in the Chase.
“I was pretty nervous when we decided to go for it on fuel,” Johnson said. “We had it, but I had to give it up because of saving fuel. That’s just how it is. You never know until the checkered flag falls how it’s going to end up. You don’t want guys you’re racing for the points to pass you and it’s real tough to control your foot and not stand on the gas, but it is what it is.”
Carl Edwards finished fifth, driving up from a 15th-place start. Truex was sixth, followed by Busch, Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, and Joey Logano in the top-10.
The funky circumstances scrambled the points standings quite a bit. Keselowski jumped five points ahead of Johnson after coming into the race one point behind the five-time champion. Hamlin remained in third, but went from being seven points down to 16 out. Clint Bowyer actually lost ground but still jumped two spots – he went from sixth to fourth, but entered the race 15 points down and came out of it with a 25-point deficit. Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart both lost ground, as did everyone beneath them. The least damaged was Gordon, who was trailing by 45 points at the start and 48 points at the end. He still jumped from 12th to 10th.
Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth had what likely were championship-killing races, and came out in 11th and 12th place, respectively. Biffle is 51 points back and Kenseth is 72 points out.
Despite the two wins and the Chase lead, Keselowski isn’t getting overconfident in his title hopes.
“There are seven races to go,” he said. “It feels great to win and I’m so proud of my team, but I can’t state loudly enough how much longer this battle is. It’s tempting to get into a comfort zone and say such-and-such has control of this race, but there’s a reason it’s 10 rounds. We’re only three rounds in. Certainly were not the underdog at this point, but there’s so much racing to go and so many opportunities for things to go wrong or right for anyone out there that it’s way too early for anyone to point those fingers and say those things.”
In somewhat unconventional Dover fashion, Kenseth was the only driver to spin in the entire race. He had a suspension part break with about 90 laps remaining, and the ensuing repair only lasted a handful of laps before it caused him to lose control on lap 317, causing the caution that caused the fuel battle. There were only four other cautions, all for debris. The race ran at an average speed of 125.076 mph.
For complete results, click here.