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Menzer: Real men can win fuel-mileage races too

October 01, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Brad Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe made all the right calls Sunday at the AAA 400 in Dover. (Getty Images)

Keselowski, No. 2 team combined power and efficiency perfectly to win at Dover

Real men win fuel-mileage races too.

It's true. In the wake of Sunday's fuel-mileage powered victory for Brad Keselowski in the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, an old debate reared its ugly, ridiculous head.

It's as if because Keselowski admittedly did not have the fastest or best car, and won by the combination of conserving fuel over the final 89 laps and having the (lack of) race cautions fall his way, his win is somehow tainted.

Chris Economaki


The "Dean of American Motorsports" passed away last Friday morning at the age of 91. Check out thoughts from numerous people and organizations on Economaki's legacy and contributions to motorsports journalism.

It isn't. Certainly Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe didn't think so.

"It's a long race. Four hundred miles at Dover, it's darn grueling, to be honest. My team just kept at it all race long," Keselowski said.

"We made some adjustments, made our car a little bit better here and there. ... We kind of fell in there on that last run, after my pit crew got me out fourth [following his final pit stop on Lap 311 of the 400-lap event], and that put us in position to really capitalize on good strategy and execution. My guys did that. They did a great job with the fuel. Together we were able to manage it very well, which is as important as anything else in racing these days. As you saw, it came together at the end for a victory."

Wolfe added: "I feel like any weekend you can run top five towards the closing laps of a race, you're putting yourselves in position to win. That's what we were able to do. It was just a great job by everybody on this team."

Nice touch

Of course, Roger Penske, owner of the No. 2 Dodge that Keselowski coaxed into Victory Lane, was in full agreement. But before he could get to paying homage to his well-deserving driver and crew chief, Penske first did so to the late Chris Economaki -- the esteemed motorsports legend (calling him a "journalist" only tells part of the story) in Sunday's post-race news conference.

"First, I want to dedicate this win to Chris Economaki," Penske said of Economaki, who passed away last week. "Obviously I go back probably 45 years with him when I was a driver; I used to take his photos home from the track. I remember one thing about him: he cared about the little guy running on the short tracks. I obviously can't thank him enough for what he did for us. I know he'd be proud today to know that the Penske Racing team is dedicating this race to him."

It was a class move by a man who exudes class.

Yet Penske took some criticism -- and deservedly so after earlier stating (repeatedly, in fact) that he liked his lone-wolf manufacturer arrangement with Dodge and actually considered it a competitive advantage -- when he announced earlier this year that he was switching his allegiance to Ford next season. In the end, it was a business move all about money and the security of a long-term contract one manufacturer was willing and immediately prepared to offer over the other.

But you have to give Penske and Dodge credit. Whatever bitterness may be lingering amongst some from their pending split, they are making it work at the Sprint Cup level heading down the home stretch of Dodge's latest run of involvement in the sport.

What happened Sunday with the fuel-mileage management was a microcosm of a team that is coming together at precisely the right time, under the unlikeliest of circumstances, with a lame-duck manufacturer that wants to go out of the sport on a high note providing the parts and pieces and technological advice that made Sunday possible.

"[My guys] did a great job with the fuel. Together we were able to manage it very well, which is as important as anything else in racing these days."

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

"Really [Sunday] it was all about teamwork," Penske said. "As I said before, Brad has really pulled this team together. He knows what he wants. Paul has a great group of guy working around that car -- not only the ones over the wall, but the ones at home, the aerodynamicists, the guys in the shop. ... Fuel economy takes two [elements of] people: the driver who knows how to get it and obviously the guys who know how to set that up at home."

Fill 'er up

The bottom line: winning a race that comes down to fuel mileage is less about luck than it is about preparation. That's why looking at such a victory as being tainted is wrong.

Isn't it true that all the other contending cars had the same opportunities during Sunday's race to play the same strategy? Give Wolfe credit for telling Keselowski immediately following his final pit stop on Lap 311 to go into fuel-saving mode -- and to Keselowski for being able to do it to perfection.

Give credit to the folks back at the Penske Racing shop and all those who had a hand in building the Dodge engine that produced the favorable fuel mileage. The Dodge engines have proven superior in fuel mileage pretty much all season, Sunday being no exception.

So it wasn't like these guys were handed a gift. They earned it. And as for fans who complain about such events, isn't the nail-biting drama of wondering which contending cars may run out of gas toward the end enough?

Meanwhile, five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson tried to stretch his fuel window, too, but couldn't do it as well as the No. 2 Dodge in his No. 48 Chevrolet. And it's not like his crew chief, Chad Knaus, isn't smart or that the endless cadre of Hendrick Motorsports engineers, technicians and mechanics don't know what they're doing.

Johnson had to settle for finishing fourth, and dropped five points behind new leader Keselowski in the Chase standings with seven races remaining before the 2012 champ is crowned.

Wolfe said it was never his team's intention to win a fuel-mileage race at Dover.

"I think the one thing that the Penske engine shop has done a great job of is giving us the power and mileage," he said. "They haven't really given me the option to sacrifice one or the other. They've worked hard to try to get both. I don't think there has been a race yet this year where we've given up power for mileage. So that definitely wasn't our approach coming into the weekend."

But they came in prepared to win that way if the opportunity presented itself, which it did. That's what championship teams do.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.