WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - It used to be so simple on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series circuit: The fastest car usually won.
Nowadays, it's the car that gets the best gas mileage. Or the one that races with two new tires instead of four. Or better yet, finishes a race without any new tires or gas.
The real race now comes on pit road, where crew chiefs try to give their drivers track position in the waning stages of the race. The lead - and the clean air that comes with it - has become more valuable in the final 50 miles of a race than gasoline and tires.
Matt Kenseth gave himself a headache in the final 30 laps of last week's Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway trying to figure out all the possible scenarios. Some leaders took on only right-side tires in an effort to pass everyone else on pit road who took four tires. Others took no tires, and they passed all the ones who took two. And if that wasn't enough, nobody was sure they had enough gas to make it all the way.
Kenseth led by nearly a full lap with 22 laps to go. He only needed a couple gallons of gas to finish the race, but that stop should have been completed quickly enough for him to maintain a one-mile cushion to the finish line.
A caution for debris changed everything. When several drivers stopped during the yellow flag - including Kenseth - Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick got track position by avoiding pit road. Harvick won the race; Kenseth wound up second and McMurray was third.
"Sometimes you just have to guess right," said Richard Childress, Harvick's car owner. "Our strategy played out just right."
Others weren't as lucky.
The Chevrolet driven by Tony Stewart, a car that led a race-best 60 laps and was called a "rocket ship" by other drivers, stopped for tires with 20 laps to go and was mired in traffic until the end of the race. He finished 12th.
"It used to be you would come (to the pits) and run until you needed gas, get four tires and go race," Kenseth said. "Now, it's people stopping under green and you can't figure out why they're doing it.
"I don't understand the strategy at all in these races."
The cars are so aerodynamically dependent on clean air, crew chiefs are more willing to pit out of sequence so they can inherit the lead when everyone else eventually stops. The lead car has the benefit of passing air on the front and rear of the car to give it traction. Cars racing in traffic lose the air off the front bumpers, and that makes them lose traction while turning in the corners. When the front tires lose grip it's called "aero-push."
That's why there's very little passing late in the race. In fact, there's only been one pass for the lead on the final lap of a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race in more than two years.
So if it's not good enough to be fast, drivers now work harder to be in the right place at the right time.
"I think the real story is what's changed with track position and competition," Jeff Gordon said. "It's so hard to make a position up, which is why you see guys risking fuel mileage. You see guys taking two tires instead of four. You see so many things changing.
"When it's that competitive and that difficult to pass and win races, then you look at any advantage you can possibly get. If there is one that you can get when the caution comes out, then you might think about taking it."
Last month at New Hampshire, Gordon had the fastest car all day. He led 112 of 300 laps, but a decision to take four tires during a final pit stop dropped him back to a 24th-place finish. Jimmie Johnson won the race by skipping a final stop for fuel and finishing with just a few drops in his tank.
A week later at Pocono, Pa., Ryan Newman shot to the front with 46 laps remaining by taking only two tires in a pit stop. Then he successfully gambled on fuel mileage to win the race.
Kenseth threw away a top-five finish, if not a victory, at Pocono by stopping for gas. As the leader of the point standings, he couldn't afford to run out of gas. The precautionary approach dropped him back to a 13th-place finish.
"I just need to shut up and drive the car," Kenseth said. "It's just that the last few weeks have been so frustrating."
Harvick was in the right place at the right time at Indianapolis. Track position, he said, was more important than having the fastest car.
"The main thing is to keep the car in front with track position," he said.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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