Racing at Phoenix International Raceway was a gas

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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

You know folks, most of the time when you say somebody won a race on gas mileage, you think "I'll bet that was boring." Sometimes that's true because the person who ends up winning is somebody back in the pack that elected to top off the last time there was a caution and not the guys that have been out front most of the day — you're sitting there watching your favorite driver have to pit for fuel and some person in the back takes advantage and picks up the victory. Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Phoenix International Raceway was not that way at all. Yes, it was a race decided by fuel mileage, but I thought it was one of the most dramatic fuel mileage races that I have ever seen next to the 1989 Daytona 500. The reason for that is because a driver with one of the fastest cars gambled and got the victory. When Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus decided that they were going to go for it, and then Clint Bowyer followed suit, it created a very exciting finale for the Subway 500. I guess the biggest shock of the night was that Mark Martin's team did not gamble and go for the win. Here's an organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc., that needs a win, they had been out front all night long, Mark had the best car — Jimmie Johnson had the second best car behind Mark Martin's No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet — and knowing Mark the way I do, when his team told him he had 80 laps to go during his final pit stop that he conserved enough fuel in order to complete all 80 laps because Mark's pretty good at conserving fuel when he needs to. I didn't get a chance during the NASCAR on FOX broadcast Saturday night to elaborate how Mark and others are able to save fuel. You've heard me say it before, fuel mileage can be helped by the way a driver comes on and off the throttle, how long he stays wide open, etc. An engine burns fuel according to the carburetor — I know, Master of the Obvious — but if you don't hold it wide open, your car's going to burn less fuel, so if you are off the gas more than you are on it you are going to burn less fuel. And at a track like Phoenix, you really can conserve a lot of fuel by coasting into the corners, slowly get back on the gas and picking the throttle up. You can still run a fairly decent pace by doing that. I'm fairly sure that's what Mark was doing throughout that last run, so for his team to call him in with eight laps to go because they felt he was going to run out of fuel before the finish, I was shocked. Of all the teams that had a chance of winning late on Saturday night, why would they be the ones that played it safe and went on to pit road? Typical Mark Martin though, classy guy that he is, he gets out of the car and he says "I thought we were going to go for it, but it didn't work out." That's it, he didn't rant and rave and bad mouth his team or anything of the sort. I guess Mark Martin was in a no-win situation no matter how you look at it. He's almost like a visitor on that team because he's a part-time driver. If he complained after the race Saturday, it'd be like somebody coming to your house for dinner and saying they didn't really like the hospitality or the food. That wouldn't be the right thing to do, so I applaud Mark for the restraint and the control of his emotions that he had. I saw him later and I really felt for him — he needed that win badly, DEI needed that win badly and they had it, but they let it get away. But at the same time, that was a gutsy call made by race winner Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. You gotta realize something, right now those two are flying high as a kite and are being called geniuses — and they are, don't get me wrong, I'm not taking anything away from either one of them. But had they run out of fuel and not finished Saturday night, they would have gotten a result of something like 30th or worse and they would be getting called things other than geniuses right now for even thinking that they could make the distance. That's the rollercoaster you ride all the time. You make a good call and you are a hero, but if you make the wrong one, you are a zero. On Saturday night, the only thing zero on the No. 48 was the gas gauge during the victory lap, and that's all that matters. I think Chad Knaus is one of the most gutsy crew chiefs I've ever seen, whether he is pushing the envelope on the rules, trying different setups on the car, calling the race ... whatever it may be, he is the epitome of a gambler and a guy who goes for it every time. Chad is usually going to take a chance and he's going to get the reward. He's a risk/reward kind of guy — He knows the big risks, and he also knows the big rewards. In his case, with the talent and resources he has on that team, it usually pays off.

Ask DW

But I gotta tell you folks, I think Chad Knaus had an intuition about what was going to happen Saturday night. I was watching Jimmie on Friday in the final practice. They fueled that car up and put four tires on it and sent Jimmie on his way. I can't give you the exact number of laps that he ran, but I know it was a minimum of 50 consecutive laps — it was probably more because I really didn't notice it until he'd been out on the track for quite a while. If you watched our practice show, I was telling Larry McReynolds that Chad was probably trying to run the car out of fuel. He was one of the few I saw do that, maybe he was the only one to do that, so he knew exactly how far he could go on that final tank of fuel and he nailed it right on the head. Just another great job of anticipating by the No. 48 crew. They showed what can happen if you are prepared for anything. A tip of the hat to Chad and Jimmie for a brilliant job done Saturday night for Hendrick Motorsports. Also, I thought it was very sweet of Jimmie's Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to say that he was sorry he didn't win, but he sure was proud that Hendrick Motorsports won, that means there's wins around the corner for everybody. That's a great attitude. Based on the way that Jeff Gordon practiced on Friday, I thought he was going to be in big trouble Saturday night, but he too came through with a nice run for Rick Hendrick, as well as Casey Mears, who also got a decent finish. Overall, you can say that it was a pretty nice weekend for Hendrick Motorsports. It was also a great weekend for the new car. I don't think you could ask for a more exciting race. The show that Martin and Earnhardt Jr. put on in those 8 cars was exciting to watch. You knew sooner or later that was going to happen, and I know Dale Jr. was probably working harder than he probably would have against anybody else because that was his old car — he handled it very well. My buddy Carl Edwards got a little behind on a sequence of pit stops, went a lap down, got the lucky dog and came back to finish fourth — another brilliant job by Carl and his No. 99 team. Overall, the racing was great. We saw action all night long all around the racetrack, cars were beating and banging each other, slipping and sliding, pushing and shoving ... it was a classic short track race, even though we were on a 1-mile somewhat-superspeedway. It was a great evening of racing. I apologize to all the NASCAR fans and all the baseball fans for what happened at the beginning of the race. I'm a huge Boston Red Sox fan. My uncle Bud, who passed away last week, made us watch the Red Sox anytime we were in Nantucket, Mass. He loved Big Papi and the Red Sox. So it was ironic to me that he passed away last week and the Red Sox game interfered with the start of the race, I think uncle Bud was manipulating the TV somehow. Nonetheless, I guess as a network we were in a no-win situation. You want to try and do what's right, but it couldn't have been a worse circumstance. The Sox were in a rain delay, so we think that's going to work out fine — we could get the race started and we'll go back and visit with Joe Buck and the rest of the MLB on FOX guys to find out what happened once the game resumed. But the rain delay ended at the same time the race started. Trying to take care of everybody probably didn't work so well. I apologize to all of our fans. Trust me, no one cares more about our sport than FOX, and they love baseball too. That was just a tough situation, and I apologize to everybody. We try to give you all the absolute highest quality telecast we can — no matter what the circumstances are — but every now and then something like that happens. I'm sorry for all my buddies that were in the truck making those decisions.

Oh, by the way

You know, a big stink this past week was made about drug testing. If you were lucky enough to see our prerace show and if you read my column last week, I've said all along and I'll say it again, drug testing should be done by an outside agency.
It can still be done on a random basis or if someone appears like they need to be tested or any circumstance that NASCAR deems appropriate, but I think it should be done by an outside source. I don't really have a problem doing it on a regular basis if everybody in the sport thinks that's the way to go. You have to remember something folks, there are a lot of people involved in our sport. Just do the numbers. Let's say hypothetically there are 50 teams in just the Sprint Cup Series, and each team has 50 people on it — obviously that's not just the people in the car and the track, but also the people at the shop, truck drivers, PR people ... this sport has a lot of arms to it. My point is that we have to be careful what we wish for. I want this sport to be as clean, healthy and pure as it can possibly be, because I feel that it has been for all these years. I think the policy we have in place has served us well. We police ourselves so trust me, when there is something going on in that garage area that is not appropriate, somebody will find out about it and they will make sure something is done about it. Once again, I think you have to trust the people in charge to run the sport in the best interest for everybody. I think NASCAR has done a good job of that. I don't have my head stuck in the sand — I'm not saying that it can't be better, it can always be better. But I'm sure NASCAR will make the appropriate changes if there are any to be made and I firmly believe that they have their arms around any drug situation that may be or have been out there.

Oh, by the way too

Congratulations to my buddy David Reutimann. He did a great job Saturday night, he came home 18th at Phoenix and got himself back in the top 35 in owner points. That was a great job on his part. Actually, all of my brother Michael's cars ran good this weekend. Also, congratulations to Sam Hornish Jr., who came home in 20th place and is solidly in the top 35 in owner points. I still have a lot of confidence and faith in what Sam is going to be able to do as he gains experience in these race cars.

One final "Oh, by the way"

Enjoy your weekend off, you are going to need it. Practice holding your breath because we are getting ready to go to Talladega in just over a week from today.
Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Casey Mears, David Reutimann, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Sam Hornish Jr.

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