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Sunday, July 31, 2011
Updated: August 1, 10:31 AM ET
Brickyard 400: Fuel strategy not so risky

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- This wasn't fuel strategy. It was fuel insanity.

Nothing against Paul Menard, an unfairly maligned driver who showed everyone Sunday he's much more than the lucky rich boy.

Menard made his first career Sprint Cup victory the Brickyard 400, the place where his father, John, tried to win so many times and failed as a team owner in the Indy 500.

It was a rare sentimental moment and another special day for a storied racetrack.

But this was crazy, confusing, baffling and almost nonsensical. It's also the new normal.

Menard/Gordon
Jeff Gordon, top, reeled in Paul Menard, bottom, down the stretch, but the four-time Brickyard 400 winner couldn't make the pass and settled for second.

Look, it was pretty darn exciting in the final laps, watching to see if the man who had the best car -- Jeff Gordon -- could freight-train his way through the field and catch the guys who rolled the dice on gas, hoping to hold him off.

Menard was the one guy who did. It's par for the course in 2011. This is happening time and time again.

In fact, it's not even the real gamble any more. The bigger gamble now is pitting for fuel with a fast car to make sure you get to the end.

Somebody is going to get to the end without pitting for fuel, someone who didn't have a car as good as yours.

Regan Smith, who finished third Sunday, was one of the drivers who got a great result by playing the fuel-mileage game.

"I hate them," Smith said of fuel-mileage races. "I don't think there's anything good about them. It's a product of how we're racing right now. We try to plan for that and race accordingly.

"It's not going to go away, so learn to adjust to it. I guess I should be happy. I take it back. I love fuel-mileage races now."

It's the hip and trendy thing to do. You don't need the fastest race car; you need a mathematician crew chief and the up-to-date driving skills on how to get one or two, or maybe three of four, extra laps out of a tank of fuel.

"It used to be at a track like this, one lap short [on fuel] meant you better come in because you weren't going to make it," Gordon said. "Now guys have figured out they can make [it] with all kinds of things, like pushing in the clutch and shutting off the engine.

"You can stretch it four and five laps now, even at a big track [2.5 miles] like this. It used to be impossible to save that much fuel, but guys are figuring it out. It's something a lot of people have been working on. Now we work on it."

Menard made his last pit stop under yellow with 34 laps to go. Gordon made his final pit stop under green while leading with 27 laps to go.

Indy is big enough track that a team can pit under green and stay on the lead lap. And several guys who were running near the front did in the final 30 laps.

Most of those driver thought they could win. None of them did.

"I was really surprised that so many cars were able to stay out there as long as they did," Brad Keselowski said. "It kind of caught me off guard."

It shouldn't catch anyone off guard now. Play the fuel game or get beat. That's the bottom line.

Keselowski finished ninth after pitting with 29 laps to go. Matt Kenseth, who ran up front most of the day and led 10 laps, finished fifth with plenty of fuel after battling back at the end.

I would rather lead and run out of gas at the end than finish the race back in the pack.

-- Jamie McMurray on saving fuel

"I'm not surprised the race went down to fuel mileage," Kenseth said. "That's all we've been talking about for three months. It happens so much this year. I was a little surprised they ran that many laps, but Paul had a pretty fast car, too.

"Some of the guys that were saving gas were so slow you were gonna beat them anyway."

All the drivers stretching it on fuel knew they had to slow down to make it to end it. With 10 laps to go, some of them slowed down so much they were barely running above the minimum speed requirement to stay on the track.

"They are all saving fuel," crew chief Alan Gustafson told Gordon with six laps to go. "It looks like they are in slow motion."

Menard was second behind Jamie McMurray with four laps to go. Paul was playing possum. He had saved enough fuel that crew chief Slugger Labbe told him, "Go get him."

Gordon caught Menard with two laps to go, but it was too late.

"When I got there, Paul had saved enough that he could go back to a full pace,'' Gordon said. "I used up everything I had getting to him. I was too tight to get by him."

At least Gordon finished second. The wrong end of the fuel game bit a lot of drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. He finished 16th after pitting under green with 28 laps remaining.

"A guy who stays out is probably going to win the race," Menard said. "You are going to see it happen again in the next few races."

It's going to happen more than it doesn't happen. With the two wild-card spots in the Chase determined by victories, teams will go for broke.

"I would rather lead and run out of gas at the end than finish the race back in the pack,'' McMurray said.

It's worth the risk, which doesn't look too risky these days.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.