News & Media

Gordon main casualty in fuel-mileage scramble

September 19, 2011, David Caraviello,

JOLIET, Ill. -- He battled handling issues, he battled a right front tire that wore down to the cords, he lost a lap and got it back again. It took nearly all Monday afternoon for Jeff Gordon to get his race car moving in the right direction at Chicagoland Speedway -- and then he ran out of fuel, and backward it went again.

A three-time race winner this season and one of the favorites to win the Chase title, Gordon was the biggest casualty of a fuel-mileage scramble that shook up the championship field in the final laps of Monday's rain-delayed 400-miler on the 1.5-mile track outside Chicago. One after another, title contenders slowed as they neared the checkered flag, their fuel tanks bled dry. And no one took a bigger hit than Gordon, who fought the whole race to get his temperamental race car in position to salvage a top-15 finish, and wound up two laps down in 24th.

"We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end. But then it came down to saving fuel, and we obviously didn't save enough fuel."


As a result, Gordon now stands 11th among the 12 Chase drivers heading into next weekend's second round in Loudon, N.H. Series leader Kevin Harvick is 25 points ahead of him -- a deficit that's far from insurmountable, of course, but also far from how one of the strongest drivers over NASCAR's regular season wanted to open his drive for championship No. 5.

"We've got to get a little bit better," said Gordon, who entered the Chase on the heels of four consecutive top-six finishes. "We've got to qualify better. We can't have days like we had today."

The only solace was he wasn't alone. In an event that came down to saving fuel, Gordon was one of several title contenders who ran dry before reaching the scheduled distance. Some like Dale Earnhardt Jr. actually had enough in the tank to gain some ground. Some like Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson coasted home while minimizing the damage. But others like Gordon, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth suffered big hits, and plummeted to the bottom of the Chase standings in the process. How frustrating could it be? Consider that Kenseth led 46 laps, but had to let eventual winner Tony Stewart go to save fuel, and finished eighth -- until NASCAR ruled that J.J. Yeley had pushed him through Turns 3 and 4 on the final lap, and relegated him to one lap down in 21st under penalty. By rule, drivers cannot be assisted by one another on the final lap.

"I don't know what to do about the fuel mileage," said Kenseth, now 10th in points and 24 behind Harvick, before he was aware of the penalty. "It is really frustrating to be a race car driver, and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half-throttle and can't floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work, and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments, but none of it makes a difference."

Kenseth said he ran out with about a lap to go. Busch, who entered as the series leader by virtue of his four wins and 16 top-10s, battled a series of pit-road miscues to get back in the top 10 before running out with two to go. He finished a lap down in 22nd, and fell from first to ninth in points, 19 behind the leader Harvick. "I saved as much fuel as I could," Busch said, "but I guess it just wasn't enough, and we ran out with two to go. Just a really disappointing day."

Five-time defending champion Johnson led 39 laps Monday, and was running third until he ran out of fuel at the white flag. A potential race-winning effort wound up as a 10th-place finish, and Johnson heads to New Hampshire eighth in points, 16 off the lead. Johnson seemed to take it in stride, given how good his car had been, and that he made up a 92-point deficit under the old system following a 25th-place finish in the Chase opener a year ago.

"I think just the emotions from the day balance out pretty easily," he said. "We ran so well. We had a lot of speed in the car, and then we kind of got clipped there at the very end. Experience pays off. We'll just continue on, and we know we've got good race cars, and we're ready for this Chase."

Even so, fuel mileage has been a weakness of the No. 48 team throughout its championship reign, and Monday Johnson seemed surprised to have run out. "I really felt like I had done enough," he said. "They told me they needed a lap before the run started, and I gave up racing [Stewart] and [Kenseth] quite a few laps earlier than they started conserving fuel. So I don't know what I did wrong. But there is proof that a Hendrick car can go the distance, because it's sitting in Victory Lane. I've just got to do better at saving fuel."

That car would be the No. 14 of Stewart, whose Stewart-Haas Racing team obtains its equipment from Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports organization. Some of the cars that finished close behind Stewart actually benefitted from the fuel-mileage situation -- including Earnhardt, who ran out right around the finish line, but carried enough momentum through the final corners to pass several of his opponents and climb to third place in the final results.

"Basically, everybody ran out," said Earnhardt, who posted his best finish since Kansas in June, and moved up to fifth in points. "The last lap, I was counting them when I went by. I don't know what place I was in, to be honest with you, so I didn't know where I would finish until after [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] told me. But I just knew we were going to get a good finish if we didn't run out of fuel. I was happy where we were."

Then there was Brad Keselowski, who didn't run out at all, but took full advantage of those who did. It was a testy beginning to Monday's event for the Penske Racing driver, who complained loudly about his car in the early going but then apologized to his team and started moving toward the front. Keselowski fell a lap down when he stayed out on a pit cycle when the other leaders pitted, a move crew chief Paul Wolfe said was for track position, but admitted didn't work out as planned. Keselowski eventually used a wave-around to get back on the lead lap, and saved enough fuel over the stretch run to seize fifth place.

"It was great, because we didn't have a great car to start the race," said Wolfe, whose driver stands sixth in points, 14 off the lead. "We really had to work hard. So to be able to have a top-five finish on a day when we didn't feel like we had a good car -- that's what it takes to be a champion, getting top-fives in this Chase when you don't have the best car."

For many drivers in the championship hunt, though, that kind of sentiment was difficult to find Monday. The Chase standings suddenly look very different from how they appeared a week ago following the regular-season finale in Richmond. A big question surrounding this new, more simplified points system has been whether drivers can make up ground after getting buried early in the playoff. Now it's Gordon, of all people, who will face that challenge, thanks in large part to a fuel tank that ran dry.

"We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end," Gordon said. "But then it came down to saving fuel, and we obviously didn't save enough fuel."