Brad Keselowski: the smoking lamp is lit. Smoke 'em! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Another less than thrilling playoff race, another gas mileage finish...and plenty of angry and frustrated drivers.
Particularly Kyle Busch, who dominated Sunday's Dover 400 but had to pit for fuel while leading with 10 miles to go...
And particularly Denny Hamlin, who was tight on teammate Busch's tail all day, until having to pit himself while leading with nine miles to go.
And particularly Jimmie Johnson -- snookered again by Brad Keselowski in the closing laps.
Busch had the car to beat, no question. But got beat.
Hamlin, doing an excellent job exorcising his Dover demons, got beat too.
And Johnson....well, looks like Five-Time and crew chief Chad Knaus have met their match in Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe.
Two wins in three chase races and a sixth in the third, and Keselowski goes to Talladega this week atop the Sprint Cup standings.
Guess who won at Talladega in the spring.....
Kyle Busch ripped off an angry, obscenity-laced tirade on the radio after the race, and then he apparently skipped out on the media out in the garage, though he insisted later than he was there for questions, but nobody showed up.
That left it to Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief, to try to pick up the pieces. Busch and Rogers have had an off-season and didn't make the playoffs, but they are an always potent combination....as they showed the crowd of some 75,000 here at Dover International Speedway, on a beautiful, warm and sunny fall afternoon.
"It's frustrating," Rogers said. "The car was strong all day... Kyle did a phenomenal job... but our numbers just said we couldn't make it.
"All race we're scanning everybody, and every time Brad or Jimmie would say they had to pit, it was five to six laps later than us. I
knew they had better fuel mileage than us, and I knew if it came down to a fuel mileage race that we were going to be in
"We played our best cards and we came up short.
"There was no doubt that we had the fastest car today."
Saving fuel -- unfortunately for the sport overall -- has become a major factor in winning and losing the last two years.
"You can definitely do some tuning with your fuel map," Rogers said, referring to the computerized fuel injection system this season.
"But we were running more aggressive on power. We were on max power today. It bit us.
"Every now and then you have a fuel mileage race. I didn't think this was going to come down to it, so we went full power.
"I'm not going to second guess our call; it was the right call. The car was fast."
Hamlin was almost heartbroken afterwards, though finishing eighth, considering his weak record here, was solid.
"It's like all the hard work you do, it just doesn't pay off," Hamlin said. "Same thing at Richmond -- we just didn't
have the fuel mileage.
"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.
"But 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 everything is going well.
"These strategy games, and the way these cautions are falling, it's ill-timed. Cautions fly when some people can make it and some
people can't make it. It's messing everything up.
"We need to improve our fuel mileage, we know that, and we'll work on that.
"Me, I'm not too discouraged, because we ran our ass off today."
Hamlin remember ran out of gas at Chicago in the final miles of the opener, so that's been in the back of his head.
"If we weren't going to make it, we weren't going to make it," Hamlin said. "There was no sense in us gambling and going several laps
"This fuel mileage game sucks. All the hard work that you put in....
"I drove as hard as I could drive for 400 laps... and then you look up and wonder why we're eighth.
"Still, a top-10 day on a track like this, and to battle for the win all day, I'm not going to complain."
So Hamlin is 16 points down going into Round Four. That's about the difference between winning and finishing 12th. Not much really.
But it's all about momentum...and luck.
"We can handle that, no problem," Hamlin said. "There's nothing we can't handle on the track. I think our performance
today is a testament to where we're heading."
Talladega, of course, is a crap shoot.
"An absolute crap shoot...." Hamlin agrees. "We have to know whom we're racing. We have to make smart decisions and keep all the fenders on it.
"Typically most superspeedways I'm right in it until the very end and get caught up in a wreck."
Jeff Gordon has to be one of the most frustrated. He ran second here, third last weekend, and was running fourth in the Chicago opener when his throttle hung and he crashed. If he'd finished Chicago, he'd be fat city in the championship hunt.
"I thought me and Mark Martin (who finished third) were going to battle it out for the win," Gordon said.
"The front tires would just not work; I don't know, maybe the splitter was hitting or something. We were trying to resolve that... and it actually worked to our favor because we had to come in and top-off and make a couple of adjustments.
"And then we didn’t have to save fuel at the end, and the car was really good."
Johnson, now with two seconds and a fourth in the first three playoff races but no longer in the points lead, conceded "we're not very good at fuel mileage races. So when I heard that, I'm like 'Man, we're in big trouble.'
"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. 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, we're improving.
"I just wish we could have raced for it. We finally got control of the race late... but it just didn't unfold like a normal race here."
And then there was Tony Stewart: 50 miles into the 400 and he was already a lap down. It didn't get better.
"We just got caught behind the eight-ball," Stewart said.
"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.
"I don't know what we've got to do to change our luck.
"It was the best car I've had here for a long time. We were definitely the caliber of Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin or Jimmie Johnson."