Economists have been saying lately that the United States has entered into a new normal. Frugality and conservation are essential. You have to take what you have and stretch it to the max. That's just the way things are these days, the experts say, and everybody needs to accept it.
It appears the same is true for NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. Conserving fuel is now the new normal. Instead of mashing the gas pedal and going as fast as possible, which used to be the definition of auto racing, drivers now find themselves lifting off the accelerator and coasting through the corners in order to save every precious drop of fuel and make it to the finish line.
Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, for the eighth time in 28 races this season, a Sprint Cup race came down to a battle of fuel-mileage strategy. And for the second consecutive race since the Chase for the Championship began, Tony Stewart was the king of conservation. Stewart took the lead two laps from the finish when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas. It was a reversal of last year's finish at New Hampshire, when Stewart was the one who sputtered to the finish, allowing Bowyer to make a last-lap pass for the win.
"I know exactly what that feels like. I know exactly how he feels right now," Stewart said of Bowyer, who plummeted to a 26th-place finish. "I saw him slowing down and I thought, 'Oh no, you're kidding me.' It's hard to lose them that way. That's not the way you want to win, for sure. But we're in the Chase now and we have to get everything we can get."
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Gas guzzling proved to be costly for Denny Hamlin as well. He was running fifth and had a chance to get back into the championship hunt when he ran out of gas with only three laps to go. Hamlin finished 29th and is already 66 points out of the lead, basically eliminating him from contention.
"It's strategy racing now days," Hamlin said with a shrug.
Five things we learned at New Hampshire:
1. The joy of six will not come easily for Jimmie Johnson. It would be foolish to count out the five-time defending champ with still eight races remaining, but Johnson certainly did not turn in a championship-caliber performance at New Hampshire. He ran outside the top-10 most the day, and then with approximately 20 laps to go had a run-in with Kyle Busch. Johnson's car got loose and suffered damage. He lost several positions during the incident and limped home in 18th place. He moves all the way back to 10th in the point standings. "It was just a bad end to a bad day," Johnson said. "We'll take this one on the chin and go on to the next one."
Johnson's frustration was evident with less than 100 laps to go. He was mired in 15th place and seemed unable to crack the top-10. When crew chief Chad Knaus tried to give him some encouragement over the radio, Johnson shot back, "Dude, your cheerleading is terrible. I'm going to drive my ass off, don't sweat it. Just watch. It's actually annoying instead of helping. Just let me go out and do my thing."
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2. Brad Keselowski is the biggest X-factor in the Chase. With his second-place finish at New Hampshire, Keselowski now has eight top-10 finishes in the past nine races, and he was 12th in the other race. Since this streak began on July 31 at the Brickyard 400, no Sprint Cup driver has accumulated more points than Keselowski.
And the thing that should worry the rest of the Chase field is the way Keselowski, who is in only his second full season of Cup racing, has dramatically improved this year when the series has returned to tracks for a second time. He was 23rd on the first trip to Pocono and then won the race there two months later. At Michigan he went from 25th to third. He was 18th at Bristol in March and then won there in August. And now he has improved from 35th in the first New Hampshire race to second. Keselowski is third in the point standings and well poised to become the biggest upset champion since Alan Kulwicki nearly 20 years ago.
3. Kurt Busch does not appear to have the temperament to win a championship. Unlike his volatile younger brother, Busch has a title to his credit, in 2004, so he has shown he is capable of winning it all. But in recent weeks he has engaged in public spats with Jimmie Johnson and several members of the media, bringing into question whether he could maintain the cool, steady demeanor needed for success in the Chase.
Then on Sunday, Busch's car failed pre-race inspection. It was a minor issue involving the rear-wheel housing -- each side of the housing was 1/32 of an inch off specifications -- and the adjustment was made in time for Busch to start in his qualifying position of fifth place. As soon as the race began, however, Busch began sliding backward ... and complaining. Instead of remaining calm and working with his crew chief to figure out what was wrong, Busch whined his way all the way to a 22nd-place finish.
4. Kasey Kahne is still on the Sprint Cup circuit. It is easy to forget that Kahne used to be one of the hottest young drivers in NASCAR. In 2006, in only his third Sprint Cup season, Kahne won six races and finished eighth in the point standings. He won twice more in both 2008 and '09. Kahne was popular with the female fans and the sponsors, and he became the sport's most prolific pitchman this side of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But Kahne went winless last season, and this year he has been suffering from the buzz kill that permeates Red Bull Racing. He entered New Hampshire 20th in the point standings with only three top-five finishes. That's fewer top-fives than Joey Logano, Marcus Ambrose and Paul Menard.
On Sunday, Kahne showed glimpses of what used to be, and what might be once again. He led several laps and ran near the front most of the race before becoming a victim of the fuel-strategy shuffle and finishing 15th. Next year he joins the powerful Hendrick Motorsports operation. Once he does, don't be surprised if Kahne quickly returns to championship contention.
5. Even with the fuel issues, this is shaping up to be an exciting Chase. For the first time in several years, the Sprint Cup title truly seems to be up for grabs among more than a half-dozen drivers. Kevin Harvick is still lurking close behind Stewart. Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon easily could make a charge. Kyle Busch is certainly capable of ripping off several victories in a row. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had two good races to start the Chase and remains in contention. And, of course, Johnson now has the challenge of battling his way back through the pack.
"We've got eight long weeks still," Stewart said. "We have a shot at this thing, but it's way too early to be counting chickens right now."