Fuel gambles affect Chase standings

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Drivers faced a critical pit choice in the final stage of Sunday's Banquet 400.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The problem with NASCAR's playoffs is that one bad finish can ruin a driver's title hopes. So when Sunday's event at Kansas Speedway turned into a fuel-mileage race, it may have ended more than one championship pursuit.

Although Tony Stewart crawled past the finish line on an empty gas tank for the victory, others refused to take that risk and suffered because of it.

The end result is a jumbled Chase for the championship leaderboard.

Jeff Burton didn't have any gas problems, and sailed to the finish line with a fifth-place finish to extend his lead to 69 points over Denny Hamlin, who jumped two spots in the standings by finishing 18th. Hamlin pulled it off despite two pit road speeding penalties.

Then there was Mark Martin, who almost ran out of fuel but didn't, and managed to finish third in the race. That vaulted him from sixth to third in the standings -- the largest move of any Chase driver.

"We didn't run out on the last lap, but we started sucking air," Martin admitted.

But the luck ran out from there.

Kevin Harvick had to recover from an early spin through the infield to work his way back into the top 10. But when all the fuel mileage gambles played out, he wound up 15th.

"If we had the fuel mileage some of the other guys got ... we could have finished in the top five, six or seven," crew chief Todd Berrier said.

Jeff Gordon, who started the race just six points out of the lead, had a devastating day when his fuel pump broke just 29 laps from the finish line. It dropped him four spots in the standings to sixth.

"It is very disappointing," he said. "We can still win the championship, but I am just upset right now. I want to get out of here and move on, go to Talladega and go from there."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. credited his 10th place finish to the fuel problems of others. When rivals had to stop for gas, he picked up track position to salvage the day and leave Kansas in seventh place in the standings.

And Jimmie Johnson seemed headed to the victory until he had to make a late stop for gas. Trouble is, NASCAR said he was speeding on pit road, and the ensuing penalty played a part in his 14th-place finish.

"I knew some guys were going to make it on fuel mileage," said Johnson, who led 105 of the 267 laps. "We had such a big lead over the guys running in second and third and all that, so I wouldn't get beat by them.

"I wasn't in a hurry to get on pit road. I just wanted to get on and get off and get back into the race and evidently I got a speeding violation."

Stewart's gamble

Since he's not eligible to race for the Nextel Cup title, Tony Stewart can take chances too dangerous for the other contenders.

So his team elected to stretch his last bit of gas on Sunday, rather than duck into pit road for a splash of fuel to make it to the finish and salvage a decent day.

It seemed like a good plan.

Until his tank ran dry.

But Stewart had built such a big lead before running out of gas that no one could catch him as he coasted to the finish line. Still, Stewart didn't immediately know whether anybody had passed him for the lead.

"That is the thing about not being in the Chase -- we can roll the dice," Stewart said.

Stewart, the two-time and defending champion, did not qualify for the Chase this season. It means he's racing for no higher than 11th-place in the standings -- and the $1 million payout that comes with it -- and can afford to race for wins instead of points.

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