By DON COBLE
Morris News Service
LOUDON, N.H. — There are a lot of reasons why so many Sprint Cup Series races have come down to fuel mileage management this year: Crew chiefs are better at manipulating track position with their pit strategies, drivers are better at easing into the throttle and tires.
That's right, tires.
Drivers said the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. has done a better job creating new tires and matching them up to particular racetracks, and that means teams don't have to be concerned about them wearing out at the end of the race.
As long as there's enough gas in the tank, there's no reason to make extra stops for tires – especially at the end of the race.
"I commend Goodyear on the reasoning for that because we have better tires this year and that is putting more pressure on the fuel mileage situation than it is coming in for tires because somebody blew one out and the fuel mileage is no longer an issue," Ryan Newman said.
For the second time in as many Chase for the Championship races, Tony Stewart correctly calculated his fuel mileage Sunday to win the Sylvania 300 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. While others were running out on the final lap, he was cruising to a win that vaulted him into a seven-point lead over Kevin Harvick in the playoff standings.
What made victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire possible was the ability to skip a final pit stop for gasoline. In the past, it was important to get new tires for the stretch drive. Now it's more important figuring out ways to go a few extra laps after the gas gauge reads "empty."
NASCAR's switch five years ago from a 22-gallon gas tank to 17 gallons also means cars aren't on the track longer than the tires will allow. The new challenge for the tire maker was to create a tire that's strong, but one that will wear out when it's abused, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said.
"So it's a fine line obviously for Goodyear," he said. "I think they want that to happen but they obviously don't want to have tire failures so they have to be very careful. So they are in tough position. It's a combination of working with the teams, NASCAR and the tire manufacturer to make the car and the racing and the tire the best it can be and I think we continue to do that."
Stewart stopped last with 76 laps remaining Sunday at the one-mile oval. He followed Clint Bowyer for more than 30 miles at the end without applying any real pressure to conserve every drop of gas. When Bowyer ran out coming to the white flag, Stewart was left alone up front. From there he led the final two laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.
Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle also played the fuel mileage game to finish second and third, although Biffle ran out in the fourth turn and coasted across the line.
Jeff Gordon was fourth, followed by Brian Vickers in fifth, Matt Kenseth in sixth and David Ragan in seventh.
Stewart, Harvick and Carl Edwards also separated themselves from the rest of the Chase contenders. All three are within 20 points of each other.
The series moves to the Dover International Speedway, a one-mile, high-banked track made of concrete. Tire wear there should be a lot more excessive than in the first two playoff races, which could reduce the probability of another fuel mileage finish.
But nothing's for certain.
"It honestly could come into play every week," Kenseth said. "It seems like we've had more of those races than we've ever had."