NASCAR

Fuel strategy wreaks havoc in Chicago

Driver Matt Kenseth (17)
Matt Kenseth endured a rough final lap at Chicagoland Speedway.
SPEED TOM JENSEN
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Monday’s rain-delayed Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway ended with a whimper and not a bang for five of the 12 contenders in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, who ran out of fuel in the last two laps.

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Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman all came up dry at the end, and it cost them dearly.

Given that Johnson, Busch and Gordon were probably the three most heavily favored drivers coming into the Chase, what happened at Chicagoland could have profound title implications.

In fact, of the 12 Chase drivers, 11 of them changed points positions at Chicagoland, the only driver staying where he was being the luckless Denny Hamlin, who finished 31st after wheel and tire troubles. He remained in 12th place.

Race runner-up Kevin Harvick now leads race winner Tony Stewart by seven points, Carl Edwards by 10, Kurt Busch by 11 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 13.

The guys who knew they gave away points were deeply pained when they lost critical positions at the end of the race.

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Kenseth arguably got the worst of it. He crossed the finish line eighth, but NASCAR dropped him to 21st in the final running order because he got pushed by fellow Ford driver J.J. Yeley on the last lap, which is not allowed.

“I don’t know what to do about the fuel mileage,” said Kenseth, who was moved to the last position on the lead lap in the official scoring. “It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans, and you have to run half-throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.”

He wasn’t alone in his despair.

“From my driving style I’ve never been all that good with fuel mileage,” said Johnson, whose quest of Cup title No. 6 did not begin well. “You’ve certainly seen me run out at other times. Not what we wanted. We certainly had a great race car, and it’s just too bad. We ran out coming to the white flag.”

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At least Johnson could take some solace in his 10th-place finish. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon finished a woeful 24th and already has dug himself a deep hole in the points.

“It was just one of those days, you know?” said Gordon, who already is 25 points in arrears of Harvick. “We had a right front (tire) tear apart. We actually got the car halfway decent there at the end. Then it came down to saving fuel, and we obviously didn’t save enough fuel.”

As for Kyle Busch, who has a history of poor Chase starts, Monday’s race was a hard gut punch. His usually dependable Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew made mistake after mistake on pit road, his No. 18 Toyota was struck by debris from another car, and he ran out of gas and finished 22nd.

The points leader coming into the race, Busch has fallen all the way to ninth in the standings.

“We had a good car today and kept fighting back all day long,” Busch said. “But once we hit that debris, it made the car really loose, and I was doing the best I can. I still hoped we could finish in the top 10. I saved as much fuel as I could, but I guess it just wasn’t enough, and we ran out with two to go. Just a really disappointing day.”

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch

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