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Rewind: Stretching fuel isn't the same as pushing limits

Sunday, Jul. 31, 2011

REARVIEW MIRROR

It’s an interesting dynamic in NASCAR these days. A large number of different winners and several first-time winners likely has the potential to generate increased excitement among the fans in the grandstands and watching at home on TV.

But the increased number of races decided by pit strategy and fuel mileage are leaving the impression that just about anyone can win in the Sprint Cup Series. Is that necessarily a good thing?

Millions of dollars are spent by teams in the garage - and demanded of sponsors - in order to go faster on the race track. How long will that dynamic remain if how fast you go continues to play a smaller and smaller role in the outcome of races? It is, after all, racing and not roulette.

Menard’s victory, along with Denny Hamlin’s drop to 11th in the series standings, would leave those two drivers as the two “wild card” entries in the Chase should they keep their positions over the next six races. However, David Ragan (in 16th with a win) and Brad Keselowski (21st with a win) could still be players, either by improving their points position or picking up additional wins.

Menard became the first driver to be eligible for the $3 million payoff at the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta through the Sprint Summer Showdown. Menard, along with the winners of the next four races, will have the chance to win $1 million for themselves, $1 million for the charity of their choosing and $1 million for one of their fans should they also win at Atlanta.

NOTEBOOK

Earnhardt Jr. slips again

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 16th-place finish on Sunday is his best in over a month, but he still dropped a position, to 10th, in the Cup series standings.

He remains 19 points ahead of 11th-place Denny Hamlin and with no wins this season, Earnhardt is in danger of missing the Chase should be fall out of the top 10 after the next six races.

Because of an early green-flag pit stop to remove debris from the grille of his car, Earnhardt was able to use pit strategy to take the lead for seven laps.

“Our car drove pretty good. We cycled around and didn't have the track position at the end, and that is all it was,” Earnhardt said. “Everybody was on a lot different strategies, too.

“We’ll go to Pocono and try not to let that overwhelm us or consume us and try to focus on the next race track.”

Smith makes it count

Entering this season, Regan Smith had never gotten a top 10 finish in the Cup series. So far this year, he has four – in the four biggest races to date.

Smith was seventh in the Daytona 500, won the Southern 500, finished eighth in the Coca-Cola 600 and was third in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

“That is the most bitter-sweet third-place of all time because you can see the leaders. I saw (Menard) and I knew he was on the same strategy as us,” Smith said.

“I wanted to go and he went and we decided to pull the reins back a little bit, hoping some more of them would run out of fuel. And then I saw (Jeff Gordon) come and I thought we were in trouble because he didn’t have to save at all.”

McMurray almost repeats

With the laps winding down, Jamie McMurray suddenly moved into the lead and was in position to win the Brickyard 400. We’d seen this before. Last season, in fact.

McMurray’s 2010 win came with a far more dominant car, but thanks to fuel strategy, he found himself in the lead with nine laps remaining on Sunday.

Menard passed him with four to go, but McMurray still managed to finish fourth – his best in what has been a difficult season.

“We got a little bit lucky today, but (we're) really happy,” he said. “We've had a tough year and a lot of things go wrong and a lot of bad luck and its very nice to have good luck.”

Stewart survives and advances

Tony Stewart overcame a penalty on pit road, a run-in with Kyle Busch on pit road and had he to pit under green late because he didn’t have enough fuel to finish.

Even with all that, Stewart got a sixth-place finish and moved into the top 10 in points, which would mean a spot in the Chase – if he can stay there through the next six races.

“I just fought for everything I could get all day,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have the best car by any means. (The team) fought hard and ended up getting something.”

KEY MOMENTS

Lap 1

Kasey Kahne easily makes his way around pole-winner David Ragan and takes command, leading 47 of the first 51 laps.

Lap 95

Under caution, there's a traffic jam on pit road and Kyle Busch slams into Tony Stewart, while Jimmie Johnson gets hit by Brian Vickers.

Lap 145

Paul Menard inherits the lead when Stewart is forced to pit for fuel.

Lap 157

Menard, who had been conserving fuel after getting passed by Jamie McMurray, goes back in front after his crew chief assures him he has plenty.

Lap 158

Jeff Gordon moves into second behind Menard but never gets close enough to attempt a pass. Menard scores his first Sprint Cup Series win.

NEXT RACE

Good Sam 500

Where:‭ Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.

When:‭ 1 p.m. Sunday.

TV:‭ ESPN.

Radio:‭ Motor Racing Network.

Last year’s winner: Greg Biffle.

More racing news, blogs, photos and more at www.ThatsRacin.com.

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