Clint Bowyer! Third win of the season, and NASCAR's new gas mileage king (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Not another gas mileage race?
Yes, yet another gas mileage finish, in what has been almost an epidemic on the stock car circuit this year.
And while Round Five of the NASCAR championship race was tense in a sense, if wondering who has enough fuel to make it to the finish is your cup of tea, Saturday night's Bank of America 500 was really mostly a snoozer, the fourth such less-than-thrilling event of the the five chase races..
Clint Bowyer won the gas gamble, and made the 500 his first Sprint Cup tour victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And he did it about the same way he did it at Richmond last month -- having to walk into victory lane.
Brad Keselowski, finishing 11th, dominated the race but lost the gamble, by just feet to be sure. That was enough to keep him atop the championship standings midway through the 10-race chase.
Keselowski was ready to make a final regularly scheduled stop on lap 275 of the 334-lapper, 88 miles from the end, under green, but he was stretching it and he ran out just after he'd passed the entrance to pit road. He fell behind Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson when he was so slow to get to his pit.
Until crew chief Paul Wolfe's gas mileage miscue Keselowski appeared on the verge of picking up 10 points on Johnson in the title chase. As it turned out, Keselowski lost seven points, and he heads this week to newly repaved Kansas Speedway just seven points ahead of Johnson.
Hamlin sits third in what has developed into a three-man title battle.
"It's like blackjack," Keselowski said of the gas mileage game. "When you hold 13, you just hope you don't have a lot of chips on the table."
"I want to do a burnout!" Bowyer said in mock frustration, as his crew pushed his car into victory lane.
"Sometimes that's just the game you have to play," Johnson said of the long closing stretch of green, the final 180 miles without a caution.
Keselowski had the fastest car, and Johnson conceded "We don't have the confidence yet, the way Brad is running.
"But then the situation began with two stops to go for it to go green the rest of the way, and you have to sweat out each lap are you saving enough, or are you running too hard?"
"Everybody ran the last 120 laps at three-quarter throttle," Hamlin said. "We knew we were going to be close on fuel, and we had 120 laps to try to save."
The win was Bowyer's third of the season, and it shows that crew chief Brian Pattie is right on his game. Pattie was dropped last season by rival team owner Chip Ganassi and Juan Pablo Montoya, and in retrospect that was clearly a poor move. Montoya has never been a contender this season, he's winless in some two years, and he finished 19th here.
Clint Bowyer: still in the title hunt halfway through the chase, in his first season with Michael Waltrip and Toyota (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hamlin, 15 points behind Keselowski, conceded the obvious, that fighting for fuel mileage like this really isn't much fun:
"It was good to have a fuel mileage race somewhat go our way.
"Darian (Grubb, his crew chief) made the gutsy call to bring us in and lose all of our track position in the middle of the race... which I was frustrated with. We saved the fuel we needed, and we slowed down enough to finish second.
"But it will be interesting to see how much fuel we had left, and whether we could have cut the reins a little bit sooner and passed Clint. We just needed one more lap.
"You're just seeing how slow you can go and maintain your track position.
"It's just the way these cautions are falling...It puts everyone in a weird (fuel) window. We had to prepare for it.
"But it's tough -- I'm sitting there thinking I can go by Clint, or catch him, just about any time I want. But Darian is screaming at me to back it off."
Clint Bowyer's crew pushes his car toward victory lane, after it ran out of gas just after the start of a victory burnout (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson also used the word "weird."
"It's just weird running so long and saving fuel like we had to at the end," Johnson said. "But there are some tracks and some conditions where that's just the game you have to play.
"It's just a big head game."
Johnson, who has watched Keselowski snooker him in recent gas mileage finishes, had the last laugh this time: "Live by the sword, die by the sword.
"I figured he was going to be fine.
"I think at Phoenix in like '09 we actually won on fuel somehow. Every other attempt we've come up short. I certainly think of Michigan -- multiple times at Michigan running out. Chicago as well.
"It's just really not our deal.
"We all have the same stuff at Hendrick, all six cars, including the (Stewart)-Haas cars... and it's amazing to look at how good Tony (Stewart) does even when they're full-rich qualifying runs. He gets so much better gas mileage than I do.
"I'm the worst out of our group. I still have my habits, and I've got to really talk myself through that lap after lap."
Hamlin says he's marveled at how well Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe have done: "They've looked at race histories and done a good job with their strategy... and that's part of racing as much as speed.
"Strategy is important, and they've optimized it... up until this race. They've done the best job at the strategy side of things. And they've had good speed, to where they've been in position, and then they can use that strategy to win them races.
"You look at that and you figure out where your weaknesses are.
"They've taught a lot of people in the garage that you've got to be smarter in a lot more areas."
The crowd was light, the action was light, but winner Clint Bowyer isn't complaining a bit (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)