(To fuel or not to fuel? That's been a big question in NASCAR 2011)
Here’s what NASCAR should do in response to the current phase of fuel mileage races on the Sprint Cup Series.
There’s nothing wrong or out of whack with the majority of races being decided by fuel strategy this season. It’s simply an evolution of the sport and in reality, a concept that has been part of NASCAR since day one.
Every race is a fuel strategy affair and it’s up to the crew chiefs, team engineers and eventually the drivers to manage those calculations on the racetrack. In reality it’s no different than figuring out tire management, camber or chassis set-up for each race. The teams that hit on those important elements are the ones that are successful.
Personally I’ve been intrigued by the racing this season and the element of drama that gets woven in because of the fuel questions. Actually the drivers that have won these races this year aren’t some undeserving back marker who ran 20th all day and then capitalized on the front half of the field running of gas on the final lap. Rather they’ve shown skills of being able to race hard while conserving fuel and have been the beneficiary of their team’s preparation.
There are definitely factors contributing to the upward trend of fuel mileage races this year. Goodyear has created a product that simply does not wear out as quickly as previous rubber, thus eliminating the need to come to pit road for tires as often.
Some have called for the tire manufacturer to simply go back to a softer compound and make what would basically be a weaker and less safe tire. Aside from the obvious danger, asking Goodyear to essentially produce a more inferior tire is counterproductive at best.
Changing the size of the fuel cell would also be a waste of effort. Although the tanks have shrunk from 22 to 18 gallons in recent years, it remains the same for every team and every car. Whether a 50-gallon drum or a thimble was used to carry fuel, if all the cars are the same how would it impact figuring out fuel mileage?
Long green flag runs have been in large supply during this recent run of fuel strategy races and the appearance of late cautions has been few and far between.
In general the number of yellow flags for each event is down. Chalk that up to couple of reasons. The caliber of driver in the Sprint Cup Series is much more of a veteran variety, which means more experience behind the wheel. For better or worse, the lack of younger and rookie drivers means less mistakes on the track, adding up to fewer spins, crashes and wrecks and in turn cautions.
There’s also the Sprint Cup car itself to keep in mind. Unlike its predecessor, the current Cup machine that debuted in 2007 is much stronger and more durable, able to withstand a lot more contact and impact than the previous incarnation. Although we still see cars hit the wall and each other, the damage and debris left behind is much more minimal which has eliminated opportunities for additional caution flags.
There have been suggestions perhaps NASCAR should intervene by throwing a caution with a handful of laps left and allow the teams to come down, fuel up and then have a shootout to the finish. If anything, it’s a pretty ironic concept considering detractors believe NASCAR has always thrown “phantom” cautions for mysterious debris to tighten up the field when things get a little strung out. Obviously if it were the case, this season would seem to be the perfect time for that conspiracy theory to be on display which it clearly is not.
But asking the sanctioning body to manipulate the outcome of a race by throwing a late caution to even things up and erase the fuel strategy element is messing with the very fabric of the sport.
For more than sixty years, Sprint Cup Series racing has been a sport with a pre-set distance. Races evolve naturally and the ebb and flow is determined by whatever circumstances arise over the course of the event.
To trump it up by adding in some kind of contrived late break to set up a dash to the checkered flag would sap every ounce of credibility out of the sport, the equivalent to an NFL game wiping out three quarters of scores for a 0-0 fourth quarter in hopes of creating a thrilling finish.
If you want gimmicks, watch the all-star race. If you want heat races, buy a ticket to a local short track.
But NASCAR racing at the highest level should be left as is and if fuel strategy is part of the equation, so be it.
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