Fuel-strategy races are gut-wrenching for both the drivers and crews trying to master the strategy and make it work for them. That drama played out Sunday on one of NASCAR’s biggest stages.
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Paul Menard, looking for his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup win, gambled on fuel and held the lead in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway entering the final lap. He had tried to conserve fuel, trying to make it to the end and grab that win.
A host of drivers had gambled on fuel, but Menard was the last with a shot to win.
For the final seven laps, Jeff Gordon — safely carrying enough fuel after pitting later — was chasing that top group. But it turned out he didn’t have enough time as Menard stunned the field in taking the win.
With five laps to go, 2010 Brickyard winner Jamie McMurray, also gambling on fuel, held the lead. Gordon moved to fifth, 3.520 seconds behind him.
With four to go, Menard retook the lead from McMurray. Mark Martin was third, and Gordon sat fourth — only 1.370 seconds behind the leader. With a lap to go, Gordon moved closer to Menard. He trailed by 0.668 seconds entering the final lap.
And he just didn’t have enough to catch Menard on that final lap.
Caution periods had jumbled the field from time to time as a small number of drivers gambled on staying out during each of the sessions. Later cautions set up a fuel-mileage gamble for some.
Still, throughout most of the race, there were familiar faces at or near the front.
Gordon, a four-time winner at the track, and Red Bull Racing’s Kasey Kahne were strong in the opening segment of the race. Matt Kenseth and Juan Pablo Montoya moved into the fray late. And Jimmie Johnson seemed to be near the front, no matter who was pacing the field.
Then the fuel strategy came into play.
Tony Stewart inherited the lead when Regan Smith pitted on Lap 135 during a sequence of stops. Stewart was followed by Brian Vickers, Menard, Martin and McMurray. At that point, Gordon was 16th and Kenseth 17th.
With 16 laps to go, Stewart sat in his dream position — more than 12 seconds ahead of the field at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the Indiana native and his Stewart-Haas Racing crew finally stopped for fuel and fell to 15th.
Pit road was, as it has been all season, a major factor in the race. During the opening pair of caution periods, someone gambled on staying out on the track while the others pitted in order to gain track position. Gordon and Kahne tried it during the first caution period, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead and held it for seven laps by using the same strategy on the second stop. He was the lone driver to take that gamble during that caution period.
With less than 60 laps to go, a caution for debris knotted the field. And suddenly, the race took on a new dimension. First Menard fought a tenacious battle from challenger Kenseth, who was closely trailed by Gordon. Then, suddenly, Montoya began to show his trademark strength at the track and moved into the mix.
On the restart with 34 laps to go, Brad Keselowski had remained at the helm. Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer; Montoya; and Johnson chased him to the flag. And, then, on lap 131, the players who had been factors throughout much of the race came back into play. Gordon moved into third, Kenseth fourth.
On Lap 130, Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kahne pitted for fuel so they could make it to the end. Others soon followed with their final stops — some took tires on those stops while others took fuel only. Strategy had come into play and set up the final run.
Kahne had taken the helm early in the race, leading 47 laps early before falling back deeper in the top 10 during a pit sequence.
Kenseth, Gordon, Menard and Montoya were in the heat of battle when Kyle Busch slammed his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall on Lap 113, bringing out the race’s fourth caution. This time it was Keselowski, Burton, McMurray and Landon Cassill who took the gamble to stay out while the leaders pitted under caution.
Pit strategy jumbled the field, with Keselowski taking the lead. Montoya, who took two tires, restarted fifth. Johnson was seventh, Kenseth 11th and Gordon back in 12th with 44 laps to go.
Cassill was hit by David Ragan as Johnson and Ragan tried to pass on each side and Cassill spun as Kahne slid across the grass trying to evade the action to half the action once more on Lap 120.
Several opted to pit during the caution period, including Harvick, who was eighth at the time; Kyle Busch; Carl Edwards; and Menard, in addition to those who slid into the grass during the incident, such as Kahne and Kurt Busch.
The race was slowed by an opening caution period for debris, then a second when David Reutimann took a hard hit into the wall.
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