Almost lost in the excitement of Tiger’s dramatic win at Torrey Pines was the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr won the Michigan 400, his first victory since 2006.
As a kid I did not really appreciate the strategic “fuel mileage” victories – I always wanted to see a flat out dash to the finish. But now the fuel mileage race is as interesting to me as most others. There are so many variables, so many moving parts, to putting together a NASCAR victory: driver, pit crew, machinery, drafting, and definitely fuel management. The entire process of making a green flag pit stop can cause such a huge shakeup in the field because the efficiency of the slow-down prior to entering pit road has as much an impact on the car’s eventual position on the track as the quickness of the pit stop itself. It’s fascinating how such subtle vicissitudes can result in such substantial changes on the race track. Similarly, on those tracks where fuel management can come into play, after the halfway point the crew chief can start calculating fuel mileage backwards from the end of the race, get the car out of sequence from the rest of the field, and have a decent shot at stealing a win by having his driver running at top speed for the last 20 or 30 laps while the leaders have to hit the pits for a quick top-off of fuel.
That’s exactly what Tony Eury Jr. pulled off for his driver on Sunday – though just barely. A caution with two or three laps to go meant that Dale Jr. had to stay out on the track for two more laps than expected (so NASCAR could provide a green-white-checkered competitive finish of two laps after the 400 miles were completed). Two laps at Michigan is four miles, which requires roughly a gallon more fuel than calculated. Dale had to cruise practically on the grass during the caution laps to shorten the distance, turn the car on and off repeatedly to do the maximum coasting possible, and then hope against hope that there were enough fumes in the gas line to permit two laps of full-speed racing.
It worked, though Dale ran out of gas on the way to Victory Lane. Good, suspenseful action.
There was some controversy over the fact that Dale, in his shut-off, switch-on caution laps zipped ahead of the pace car twice, and was not punished for it. But no one would have been punished for such a minor violation, in my view. NASCAR can be strict, but I’ve never seen a driver punished for a couple incidental violations of that nature.
Dale is having a heck of a year in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. In terms of Cup points, it is his best year ever so far and a vindication of his decision to leave DEI. Good weekend for TV sports.