If there was any fairness in motor racing, then arguably one of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars should have been celebrating in victory lane at Dover International Speedway at the end of the AAA 400 on Sunday afternoon, the third of the ten races in the 2012 Chase.
After all, Denny Hamlin had claimed pole position at Dover for the first time in his career and led the first 34 laps, and thereafter was never out of the top three until ten laps from the end of the race. And his team mate Kyle Busch had been the man to pass him for the lead, and then kept it for a total of 302 of the 400 laps of the race.
Both JGR cars had gambled on tuning their engines for speed rather than fuel efficiency, and in the end this bit them after a long race with only five cautions for a total of 28 laps left them just short on fuel. By the time the pair had come in for a splash-and-dash ten laps from the end, they were left a lap off the leaders who were leaning it out just enough to get to the chequered flag.
In the end, the driver with the best balance of pace and fuel conservation proved to be Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski, who made his tank of gas last an impressive 79 laps to the finish without giving up quite as much speed as some of the others trying the same strategy. It's the first time he's even finished in the top ten at Dover.
"I may not have had the best car, but I hung around in that top five, just creeping around - and when you do that, you put yourself in position for good things to happen," he said in victory lane afterwards. "It wasn't easy. The Dodge team and Penske have done an incredible job with these engines with power and fuel balance to go faster."
He wouldn't divulge just how much fuel there had been left in the tank by the end, and how close the team had pushed it to the limit.
Pursuing Keselowski to the line had been the hard-charging Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, who had been among the last to top-up their fuel under the final caution of the afternoon on lap 317 for a spin by Matt Kenseth after his rear suspension broke. The other drivers had pitted under the previous caution just a few minutes earlier and hadn't felt the need to return to pit road so soon, but that call proved crucial in the end.
Jimmie Johnson had been one of those to stay out under that final caution, and he made it to the finish line only by leaning off the fuel as much as possible even though it put him well down on speed in the final laps. That cost him a shot at the win and he had to settle for fourth place after he was passed at the end by Gordon and Martin, who had no equivalent imminent concerns about fuel.
"We're not very good at fuel mileage races," admitted Johnson, who has seven previous race wins at Dover on his resumé. "When I heard that, I'm like: 'Man, we're in big trouble.' He asked me to start saving fuel, and I doubled the distance out of the gate just to make sure that I did enough to get us to the end.
"It's tough; it really is. But we have a handful of races that come down to it each year and we've worked to get better at it," he continued. "This is like the second of 15 or something that we've attempted to finish in a low fuel situation and got it done. So I'm improving and we're improving. I wish we could have raced for it."
But the Toyota engines in the JGR cars weren't set-up to allow such a high degree of fuel saving and so Busch and Hamlin had no chance of matching Johnson's feat.
"Thank you, TRD," fumed Busch over the team radio, referring to Toyota Racing Development who build the team's engines for them this season. "[Screwed] us out of another one," he added, alluding to a number of engine problems that had beset the team this season.
It was left to his crew chief Dave Rogers to be more diplomatic about the situation. "We were running more aggressive on power. There were some options to save fuel, but we were on max power today," he explained. "It bit us a little bit - we had a fast car though."
Busch and Hamlin ended up off the lead lap and finished in seventh and eighth positions. That's by no means a disaster for Hamlin's Chase hopes and keeps him firmly in the title hunt, but it could have been so much better given the pair's dominant form all afternoon.
"We choose to have the horsepower over the fuel mileage and some guys don't tune that way - when you have a race-winning car you don't want to give up any of the horsepower," said Hamlin. "It's so frustrating. It's like all the hard work that you do, it just doesn't pay off. Same thing at Richmond, we just didn't have the fuel mileage.
"They're not going to beat us on the track, that's just plain and simple. We're just too fast right now and I feel like everything is going well," he continued. "We need to improve our fuel mileage, we know that and we'll work on that as much as anything. For me, I'm not too discouraged because we ran our ass off today."
Despite finishing in second place, Jeff Gordon is still struggling to recover from his disastrous opening race to the 2012 Chase at Chicago, which saw his throttle stick and send his car into the wall and a costly premature retirement from the race. Even though he finished in third place last week and now as runner-up at Dover, he's still mired down in tenth place in the standings and some 48pts off the lead.
"We have to look very realistically at this point," said Gordon. "We're not going to continue this championship against those guys up front if they keep running the way they're running. The only way we're going to get a chance at them is if they have a problem like we had."
But in the meantime, all he can do is keep on doing what he's doing - finishing as strongly as he can every week: "I think our focus is top fives, try to win. If we keep running like this we'll get the wins. We can't control what the other guys do, we can only control what we do."
He has at least overhauled the two Roush Fenway drivers in the standings, with Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth both having dreadful starts to the Chase. That's despite their having had such consistent regular seasons that they both topped the championship standings in the weeks before the Chase cut-off.
Biffle was running in the top ten at Dover when an incorrectly-fitted right front wheel ended up putting him off the lead lap, meaning that he eventually finished in 16th place.
"[They] knew the right-front was loose and they came over and did the lefts anyway. I don't know why," said a clearly frustrated Biffle. "That cost us an extra lap on the race track ... That really takes us out of the title hunt," he added.
Kenseth's problem was his rear track bar, debris from which triggered the fourth caution of the day on lap 308; Kenseth's subsequent spin on lap 317 after the restart then brought out the final caution of the afternoon and put the perfect capper on what had already been a mediocre day. He's now the bottom of the Chase contenders in the points and 72pts adrift of the leader - his chances of winning the Cup title before departing Roush for Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season all but done.
"In two out of three Chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that's not good," said Kenseth. "Our performance hasn't been very good, either," he admitted.
"This is probably the worst we've run here for as long as I can remember," he continued. "We just really missed it. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk. Everybody is trying hard, but we just missed it."
It was cold comfort that their team mate Carl Edwards finished in fifth place, as last year's Cup runner-up didn't make it into the Chase this year.
"We didn't deserve to finish that far forward, but we had some lucky breaks and my guys did a good job on pit road," said Edwards, who had clearly got the good fortune so lacking for his team mates. "I feel bad for Matt and Greg."
With long green flag stints between the first three cautions for debris, it was hardly surprising that only six cars were not lapped on the one-mile oval over the course of over three hours of racing. Behind Keselowski, Gordon, Martin, Johnson and Edwards, the only other driver to finish on the lead lap at Dover was Martin Truex Jr. His Michael Waltrip Racing team mate Clint Bowyer ended up a lap down in ninth place behind Busch and Hamlin.
"What a crazy day - at the start of the race we were just terrible. I don't know what it was, whether it was the first set of tyres or what," said Truex, who had gone a lap down early on after being caught out by the first debris caution of the day, which had come out when drivers were in the middle of their pit stops on lap 69 courtesy of a blown tyre on JJ Yeley's car.
"We pitted and made a few changes and you know, of course, we got caught by the caution which got us two laps down," he explained. "But, at that point right there the car was fast. It was fast all day after that. We just battled, battled hard. We passed a ton of cars. Obviously, we got a few at the end there cause of the fuel mileage deal. We came from dead last there with the 'lucky dog' the last run and I was catching the #99."
Of the rest of the Chase contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished in 11th place and Kevin Harvick claimed 13th, which keeps them solidly in the midfield of the standings but nonetheless gradually falling away from the points leaders.
"Our car wasn't very good," confessed Harvick. "We got caught with that one caution and that kind of got us a couple of laps behind. We made some good adjustments and got it back to where we needed to, just couldn't make up those two laps."
Kasey Kahne had been looking set for a top five finish when a late vibration forced him back to pit road for an unscheduled stop on lap 362 with a loose front right tyre. Any hopes he might have had of recovering from there were dashed by a lug nut getting missed in the pit stall, which left him returning to pit lane a second time and ending up three laps down in 15th place.
"The car just started shaking really bad," he said. "I got nervous because it was getting worse and worse ... I was definitely upset about it, but things happen," he added. "The bad part was when we came down pit road and they changed right sides and left a lug nut off on one of the wheels then we had to come back down pit road that was what hurt us really bad. That stuff shouldn't happen."
"Right before it did that we were fast, we finally got our laps back that we lost early and we were coming on," he continued. "I could see I was eating Keselowski up pretty good and had plenty of fuel. We were sitting really good because we had just pitted and topped off ... Everybody was saving gas, so I thought we were in a really good spot and I could run really hard. I felt really good about where I was."
Kahne finished five places ahead of reigning champion Tony Stewart, who is finding it difficult to recapture the astounding form that carried him to the title in the 2011 Chase.
"We just got caught behind the eight ball there," he admitted. "It was just a domino effect. Every time you'd try to get a lap back it would run all the way to the end. And as soon as we'd pit, the caution would come out again. So, I don't know what we've got to do to change our luck, but that's just the story of the day for us.
"It was the best car I've had here for a long time," he added. "We were definitely the calibre of the #18 or the #11 or the #48." Unfortunately it hadn't shown in the race, and as a result Stewart slips down to fifth position in the Chase standings and is now 32pts off the leader.
Considering he's won two of the three Chase races so far this year, it's hardly surprising that it's Brad Keselowski who claims that lead of the Cup championship coming out of Dover - although he's just 5pts ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Denny Hamlin is 16pts back from Keselowski and Bowyer is 25pts off the lead, which indicates that the 2012 title may already be a four- if not three-horse race even this early in the proceedings.
No one will be surprised to see Johnson right in the mix. Not many will be surprised to see Hamlin back on his game after coming so close to winning the title in 2010. But Keselowski? No one had been writing him off by any means, but the fact that he's in the lead and looks in the form of his life is leading many pundits to positively re-evaluate his Cup prospects.
Penske Racing might have been pipped to the IZOD IndyCar Series title at the last minute in September: but are they now on course to make amends with an even bigger prize in motorsport?
"An unbelievable day," said Keselowski's crew chief Paul Wolfe. "That was a type of performance that we needed to stay in this championship and we showed today that we're going to continue to be there every week."
"That's what this #2 team has done the last few months," added the driver himself. "Man, if we keep doing this the next seven weeks it will be an awesome seven weeks."
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings