14 October 2012
Fuel run boosts Bowyer, bumps Keselowski
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."
Martin Truex Jr.
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