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Fuel run boosts Bowyer, bumps Keselowski

14 October 2012

Clint Bowyer was celebrating in victory lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway after Saturday night's Bank of America 500 Sprint Cup race under the floodlights ended in success for Bowyer and the Michael Waltrip Racing team.

The key to Bowyer's success was making his fuel last all the way from his final pit stop on lap 278 to the finish 56 laps later, despite the last hundred laps of the race enjoying an uninterrupted caution-free period of racing. Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson similarly managed to squeeze enough out of the tank to make it home in second and third places respectively, while everyone else had to make an extra pit stop before the finish.

Ironically, Bowyer's team uses the same Toyota Racing Development engines as Joe Gibbs Racing does, after their driver Kyle Busch heavily criticised the company for letting him down on the engine's fuel conservation two weeks ago at Dover, a race that Keselowski had been able to go on and win on fuel.

While Busch was still unable to match the fuel-saving strategies of Bowyer or his JGR team mate Hamlin this week, he still did enough to finish in fifth place as one of only six drivers to finish on the lead lap at the end of over three hours of night racing on the 1.5-mile oval track. The others were Greg Biffle (fourth) and that irrepressible veteran Mark Martin (sixth.)

Biffle had won pole position with a new lap record on Thursday with Martin joining him on the front row; Ryan Newman had been set to start from third place alongside Bowyer, but had to have an engine change after qualifying that meant he was dropped to the back of the field as the race got underway shortly before 8pm local time.

Biffle and Martin went side-by-side for the first four laps of the race before Biffle finally established his supremacy at the front, and there was a caution on lap 12 as Matt Kenseth went for a harmless spin out of turn 4. More serious was the frontstretch crash involving Jeff Burton and David Ragan at the restart attempt on lap 15, which also inflicted some significant damage to the nose of the #14 of reigning champion Tony Stewart in the resulting knock-on pile-up through the midfield. While all those involved lost time in the pits for repairs, they were all able to rejoin the race again.

Finally the race got back to green flag running on lap 22 with Biffle leading Bowyer who had managed to just get ahead of Martin in that shortlived first restart attempt. Bowyer was soon bumped down by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and by his own team mate Martin Truex Jr., and with so many Toyota drivers massing behind him it must have dawned on the Ford-powered Biffle that he might not have the right engine for the task this week.

There had been concern about some right side damage to Paul Menard's car from that earlier restart incident, but on lap 36 the question became academic when he slapped the wall in turn 4 and spun out, putting the matter beyond doubt and bringing out the third caution of the evening. It would prove to be the last yellow for an incident, the only two remaining caution periods being triggered by debris.

Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose opted not to pit under the current caution and stayed out to assume the lead ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin. Ambrose briefly took the lead despite his car carrying damage from that earlier restart incident, but it was Keselowski who really maximised the moment to reclaim the position through turns 1 and 2 and settle into the top spot for his first significant stint at the top of the scoring post.

Subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. - who had been forced out of the race after suffering a concussion at Talladega last weekend - Regan Smith was having a decent early run. He had moved up into the top ten by lap 62 when the #88 car suddenly started sending out smoke signals: it was not happy, and the dismayed stand-in driver had to bring it into the garage area. Emergency surgery wasn't enough, and his big break in the limelight was over too early.

"It's disappointing," admitted Smith, who said it wasn't immediately clear what had gone wrong with the Chevy engine. "We are still looking at everything. I think the important part was is that we had a really fast race car. We had a good first adjustment there, went just a little too far with it and got a little too free. Needed one more stop and I think we would have had it dialled in."

Smith's exit from the race hadn't triggered a caution, and on lap 74 Keselowski gave up the lead signalling the start of a round of pit stops, having not joined the rush to pit lane under the previous caution. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart were among the last to come in on lap 85 and once the stops were completed it was Keselowski back out in front with Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five.

Keselowski was visibly slower during this stint - perhaps trying to lean out this tank of gas to bring him back into sync with the others - and as a result Johnson on his fresher tyres was able to swoop past him through turns 3 and 4 on lap 97 to take the lead for himself. Keselowski would also loose second place to Hamlin after getting stuck behind the slow lapped traffic of Juan Montoya and series returnee AJ Allmendinger.

Keselowski pitted from third place on lap 125 for the next round of pit stops, and this time it was only four laps or so until the rest of the field started to cycle through pit lane as well indicating that he had managed to get good mileage during that subdued part of the race. Johnson had a poor stop and dropped to third place, with Hamlin in the lead ahead of Keselowski once the sequence was complete. However, Johnson wasted no time in dispatching Keselowski and taking back second place on lap 141.

Johnson managed to catch up to Hamlin as they hit traffic, but before he could do anything about recapturing the lead the track was under its first debris caution on lap 166 which allowed a round of pit stops under the slightly saner yellow flag conditions. Johnson went for a two-tyre call while everyone else opted for four to emerge from pit exit ahead of Hamlin, with Keselowski alongside Biffle on the second row. It was Biffle who judged the restart on lap 173 the best to go three-wide and jump into the front: Johnson and Hamlin were forced to back off, allowing Keselowski to follow Biffle through and claim second place for himself - putting him in the best place to capitalise on Biffle getting the wiggles on lap 180.

Hamlin settled into second place with Kyle Busch taking third as Johnson appeared to be having some serious issues with his latest two-tyre call which saw him drop out of the top six. The five-time champion would have been the most relieved man in Charlotte when the next round of green flag pit stops began from lap 215 with Martin Truex Jr. coming in.

Now fully back on sync, Brad Keselowski held out to lap 222 before making his stop, and Clint Bowyer was the last man to stop a lap later just before the second and final debris caution of the day was declared. The timing proved a split decision for teams as to whether to come back in again quite so soon, given that the end of the race was still in the extreme edge of being able to make it on just one more stop: Johnson, Harvick, Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish Jr. and Aric Almirola took the chance to come in again but the majority stayed out. Having literally just been on pit lane before the yellows, it was probably Clint Bowyer who had the easiest call to stay out.

At the restart, the top six were Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer; Hamlin had dropped back to tenth and Johnson to 11th as a result of coming in, but both were soon working their way forward again once the green flag came out. Keselowski meanwhile had picked up some debris on the front grille of the #2, but in the cooler night air it didn't seem to adversely affect the performance of the car and he continued to run out on front.

Bowyer's team mate Martin Truex was once again the man to signal time for another round of green flag pit stops on lap 259: he clearly couldn't make it all the way to the finish from there without a further stop. Neither could those who followed his lead, even Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch coming in on lap 268 or Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth stretching it to lap 274.

Keselowski was desperate to stay out as long as he could to give him a shot of winning the fuel conservation battle just as he had done two weeks ago at Dover. But on lap 275 it was clear he'd pushed it too far and that his car was starved of fuel, leaving him crawling his way painfully slowly around the track back to pit road, losing time and positions all the way.

Bowyer managed to make it to lap 278 before pitting, while Johnson nearly suffered a similar fate to Keselowski a lap later when he was forced to weave the #48 from side to side to pick up the last dregs of fuel as he came on to pit road. Denny Hamlin was the last man to pit a lap later, and now the fuel strategies had been dealt out and all anyone could do was wait and see who could play the cards best and who would be out of luck.

Biffle, Busch and Martin were out in front, but all of them were told that there was no way that they could make it without a further stop. The only drivers who could were Bowyer, Hamlin and Johnson; Keselowski was doing everything he could to lean out his remaining tank of gas as he sank back to 13th pace on his reduced speed, but realistically he needed another caution - and a long one - to have a chance of making it, his team telling him that he was a good four laps off being able to make it otherwise. On a 1.5-mile track, that's beyond the capacity of even the most aggressive fuel conservation to make up.

The fuel dominoes started to fall: Kyle Busch and Mark Martin pitted from second and third place on lap 309, and a lap later it was the turn of race leader Greg Biffle to head for a splash-and-dash. That left Clint Bowyer in charge, two seconds ahead of Hamlin, and it was clear that these two were determined to make it to the finish without another stop.

Keselowski surrendered to the inevitable and came in for fuel on lap 311, hoping that this would allow him to run flat out and make up the lost ground over the remaining 23 laps. He resumed in 11th place, but crucially was now off the lead lap which consisted of just six drivers: if Bowyer, Hamlin and Johnson could make it to the finish without running dry, then one of them would have the win. If they all faltered, the win would be between the 'back-up' group of Biffle, Busch and Martin. With no further cautions on offer, everyone else was now out of it.

Bowyer was the driver under most pressure, having made his stop before Hamlin and Johnson. It was clear he was having to save the most aggressively, allowing Hamlin to close up ever closer over the remaining laps of the race so that the 2.5s lead he'd enjoyed was soon trimmed down to just half a second in the final laps. It seemed that Hamlin might have the momentum to carry on his run and claim the win at the line, but Bowyer had managed his final stint to perfection and had just enough left in the tank to hold Hamlin at arm's length and pull off his third win in 2012 and his eighth win in 248 series starts.

"Who would have thought in a million years, after making the switch and coming over to a new family, and everything that was new, that we'd be in victory lane three times?" said Bowyer after the race, referring back to his switch from Richard Childress Racing to MWR at the start of 2012. "With five races left, we're still in contention for a championship our first year together.

"It's so much fun to come to the racetrack knowing that you've got cars that are capable of getting the job done," he added. "It makes you almost giddy."

Behind him, neither Hamlin nor Johnson were thrilled by the way the race had ended up being all about fuel numbers.

"It's so tough. It's frustrating because you want to go and go and go. I had such a good car," said Hamlin. "I just wish we could go green and we wouldn't even have to deal with this. But it's just part of the game.

"At the end of the race, you have to decide: how fast do you want to go? Do you want to risk it all to try to win the race? Or do you look at the big picture?" he explained. "I had to look at the big picture and try to keep the #2 behind us, and the only way to do that was to save fuel."

"Those last two runs, I ran half-throttle," signed Johnson. "I probably ran 80 laps saving fuel here at the end, just to put us in this position ... We ran around in circles and were done.

"It's a tough way to race, for sure, but I'm happy that as a group and a team, we've figured out how to get better at fuel-mileage racing," he added. "I'm very pleased with the progress we've made, that I've made in the car. My driving style just eats up fuel. Making good changes, and playing the game the way it needs to be played right now, and closed in a little bit on that #2 car."

With Keselowski never recovering from that 11th place he inherited after the final round of splash-and-dash stops, the championship standings have tightened up at the top: Keselowski is still out on front but with his lead trimmed to just 7pts over Johnson and Hamlin just 8pts further back. Bowyer's race win puts him 28pts off the Chase lead and Kasey Kahne (who held on to a solid eighth place at the chequered flag) is 35pts off the top.

Greg Biffle is up three positions to sixth but that's still 43pts away from Keselowski with just five races remaining in the 2012 Chase. Dropping places as a result of their Charlotte outings were Tony Stewart (who drove commendably in a heavily damaged #14 to finish in 13th place) and Jeff Gordon (ending his recent surge of comeback performances with a poor 18th this weekend.)

Other notable drives this weekend include Kurt Busch finishing in 21st place in his debut with Furniture Row Racing, and AJ Allmendinger who was able to claim 24th as a last-minute stand-in in Busch's old race seat at Phoenix Racing.

"Finishing 21st might not appear that we made progress, but the fact of the matter is that we did in our first three days together at the track," explained Busch. "But we're also realistic, knowing that there will be more kinks along the way to work out in the final five races of the season.

"It initially appeared that we had the #78 hooked up and all systems looked solid," Busch added. "But then we ran into a binding problem with the car and it started to slow down ... We also had handling problems later in the race and never could get in the lucky dog position and back on the lead lap.

"We have some things to work on, and having two days of testing in Kansas next week will give us additional time to sort things out," he finished. "I was pumped before our first practice session on Thursday and I am even more pumped as we move forward."

Allmendinger had been set for an even better finish that 24th until a tyre got away from the pit crew during the final stop, earning the #51 a drive-thru penalty.

"I questioned whether or not I could even do 500 miles at Charlotte, but then we were competitive up until we lost that tyre - we were looking at a top 17 finish, beating some really good race teams," said Allmendinger. "I just want to thank [Phoenix Racing owner] James Finch for this opportunity and we'll see if we're racing at Kansas next weekend."


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