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Keselowski latest to benefit from NASCAR's fuel mileage racing

KOONTZ LAKE, Ind. -- Auto racing is supposed to be a sport about speed, passing and fearless lead changes, but lately it has become a glorified fuel economy run. It's not about seeing who is fastest to the checkered flag; it's about who can stretch their last tank of fuel the longest.

Consider what has happened the last two weekends:

--The 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 is decided when the final 37 laps are run without a caution, forcing drivers to stretch out the fuel as long as possible. Once Scott Dixon pits on lap 178, Danica Patrick assumes the lead for 10 laps before she is forced to pit for fuel with 11 laps left, giving the lead to Bertrand Baguette. He, too, has to conserve fuel and eventually gives up the lead to rookie JR Hildebrand, who appears on his way to victory before smacking the Turn 4 wall on the last lap, giving the victory to Dan Wheldon.

--Later that night in the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600, Dale Earnhardt Jr. appears on his way to snapping a 104-race winless streak when he is in the lead on the white flag lap of a green-white-checkered restart. But he runs out of fuel in the last turn of the last lap to give the victory to Kevin Harvick.

--In Saturday night's Nationwide Series race, Carl Edwards appears to be on his way to victory on the final lap before he runs out of fuel on the backstretch. He gets passed by Justin Allgaier, who also runs out of gas coming out of Turn 3. So instead of a race to the finish, these two cars coasted to the checkered flag with Allgaier claiming the victory over Edwards at a snail's pace.

--Sunday's STP 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway becomes another economy run where Kurt Busch had the best car, but when the last portion of the race was run without a caution period, he had to pit with nine laps to go. That gave the lead to Brad Keselowski, who was able to stretch his last tank of gas for the final 57 laps and win the race. Earnhardt finished second and later said that was the only way he was going to finish near the front was by stretching his final tank of fuel.

Better get used to it because next Sunday's event is a 500-miler at Pocono International Raceway, where seemingly all of its races end as fuel mileage contests. The triangle-shaped track is infamous for its long green flag runs where the field gets spread out. With fewer cautions, an environment is created where the car that wins the race is often the one that pits at the right time.

And after Pocono comes Michigan International Speedway -- the king of fuel mileage races.

"It's just the way the cautions fall," Earnhardt explained. "If the cautions fall at a certain time it changes the fuel window for everybody. This place (Kansas Speedway) is real hard to pass on. The guys up front didn't want to give up the track position to get the fuel. They figured that there surely would be another caution. I mean the odds were great to have another caution. And they still had to make two stops and we came and got the fuel. We only had to make one and we got lucky and it went to green."

A lot of fans may be disappointed to see a race winner who wins on fuel mileage rather than flat-out racing. That's what happened when Keselowski won this past Sunday, but the driver that finished second used a similar strategy and believes that is another key aspect of racing -- understanding how to make it to the finish without pitting late in the race.

"Anytime you win a fuel mileage race you've done something as a driver," Earnhardt said. "We don't know what we're doing really trying to save gas or how much we're saving. But (the driver) had a hand in it."

According to Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, they were only three quarters of a lap short of making it to the finish so they didn't need to save much fuel. And without another car close enough to put pressure on the leader, it was easy for Keselowski to go into conservation mode.

When a team makes it to Victory Lane in a fuel strategy race, this is where the calculations have to be precise and the nerves have to be steely enough to live with a bold gamble. This is where a crew chief has to sell the strategy to the driver and the driver has to execute it perfectly by racing fast enough to be competitive, but slow enough to save fuel.

"Around lap two, we knew if we could make it to (lap) 210, from there we were close to being able to make it the rest of the way," Wolfe explained. "As guys started pitting, I looked at where our lap times were, and it seemed like we started picking up a bunch of speed there. I don't know if we got some clean air or what but it was almost a no-brainer for me because we were only losing three to four tenths to the guys on new tires. Normally, when guys start short pitting, it seems like you're losing over a second a lap and you just lose so much track position. But it was like as everybody started peeling off and pitting, we just kept getting faster and faster. We were still running mid-33s and guys were running low 33s. We were not losing much, so it got us in a position where there were so many cars a lap down, even if the caution came out, we were still sitting OK.

"It was almost a no-brainer for me once I saw how much speed we had in the clean air."

When a driver wins a fuel mileage race some race fans almost expect them to be apologetic. After all, it's not the type of race that fans really want to see. They want a side-by-side, fender-banging, lead-changing battle all the way to the last lap.

But wins come down to which driver is able to make it to the finish line first. And if that means stretching it on one less pit stop then the victory goes to the smartest, not necessarily the fastest.

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