Sunday, August 17, 2008

BROOKLYN, Mich. | NASCAR drivers got into the stock car sport for the speed. But feathering the gas pedal to save gas is a regular — and dreaded — part of their jobs.

Michigan International Speedway is one of the places where fuel economy often comes into play.

That’s how Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended a 76-race winless string on Michigan’s 2-mile oval in June, and it’s likely to be a factor in Sunday’s 3M Performance 400.

Drivers are either apologetic or defiant after winning a race by getting to the finish line on fumes while their closest competitors run out of gas or are forced to pit.

“My fans are happy, and I’m happy for them,” he said after barely stretching his last fuel load to the finish. “The other half are going to tear this apart on how we won this race. But I got the trophy, and I got the points.”

Earnhardt, who will start fourth Sunday, hasn’t won since the last Michigan race and has slipped from third to fourth in the season points.

“Just the race tracks we have been going to,” he said. “I don’t have good finishes at those race tracks. Couple of road courses, Pocono, it is just typically not a good part of the season where we have run very good. We are always strong at the races the first third and last third of the season.”

Another victory here would be a good way to gain some momentum with only four races left until the start of the Chase for the Championship. And, if he has his choice, it will be a full throttle win.

“It would be good to get another win to show everybody we can do it on a full tank of gas,” Earnhardt said. “It would be a good to get a win anywhere, but Michigan is a good place because of the manufacturers being close. Being close to Detroit, Motor City.”

Asked what he will do if crew chief Tony Eury Jr. gets on the radio and tells him to start saving gas again, Earnhardt replied: “Get mad, because you don’t want to save, you just want to run hard.

“It is a lot of work and you don’t know if what you are doing is saving gas or not. You don’t know what you are accomplishing, and it’s no fun.”

Jeff Burton agreed, noting that the timing of the request to try to save fuel can be important, too.

“The first thing I need to know is how much fuel do we need to save,” Burton said. “You can’t tell the driver to save fuel with five laps to go in the race. The information has to be fed to a driver as soon as that run starts.

“Look, we’re on the edge here. The only way to save fuel is to go slower. You de-accelerate sooner. You’re off the throttle sooner. You’re on the throttle later and you’re on the throttle less aggressively.

“By the way, you still have to make reasonable lap times in most cases.”

Denny Hamlin, one of several drivers working hard to stay in the 12-man Chase field, is concerned because his team hasn’t been good at fuel economy racing.

“We’re terrible when it comes to that,” said Hamlin, who goes into Sunday’s race tied with Greg Biffle for 10th in the standings, just 83 points ahead of 13th-place Clint Bowyer. “We’re just trying to get better, and we did definitely [improve] on road courses.

“But these bigger tracks we still are, it seems like, always about two or three laps less than what everyone else is. I’m not a fan of the fuel mileage races. I like the fastest car winning. … I don’t think the fans like a crew chief race — I think they like to see a driver’s race.”

But Earnhardt isn’t worried about what anybody thinks, as long as he wins.

“I have been on both sides of it,” he said. “Everybody would like to just go out there and just outrun the hell out of everybody to win races. Sometimes, you have to take them how you get them.”

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