Fuel mileage. Some crew chiefs are masters at the art and science of fuel mileage. Others find themselves on the wrong side of the fuel gauge at the wrong time. Paul Wolfe has it all figured out.
As the laps wound down at Kentucky Speedway, it became apparent that the Quaker State 400 was going to come down to fuel mileage. As they've done numerous times, the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team rose to the occasion in a winning fashion.
"Well, it's definitely an emotional roller coaster for sure the last few laps of that race," Wolfe said. "When we pitted -- I guess it was with about 70 to go -- we knew everyone was a little bit short. I feel like we've been on the good side of the fuel mileage this year. All the guys at Roush Yates have worked hard to give us power and mileage, and that showed up again tonight. But with that being said, we were kind of expecting to see some cautions as we did early in the race, so it wasn't really a big concern. But as the race started getting with 20 to go, then it was time to start making decisions. As you saw some of the guys running fifth, sixth, I think, peeled off with maybe 15, 16 to go, and then it was kind of decision time on what do we do, because we knew we couldn't make it. We knew we were short. But as we got out there and got the lead in that final run, Brad started saving, and he's one of the best in the business at saving fuel.
"So as we got down to 10 to go, it was kind of like, 'make the call, what you want me to do.' I kind of know what our strengths are, and that's definitely saving fuel, and I kind of went with that strategy and told him to go and be even to a 10 on a scale of a save mode ... I think the 20 ran out and that kind of gave us a big cushion back to the 19 -- I think it was 10 or 12 seconds -- so that really allowed us to start saving.
"But it comes down to it, we were out. I mean, we were totally out at the start-finish line, so it couldn't have timed out any better," Wolfe explained.
Much of the credit goes to his driver.
"Brad did a great job saving. I don't know that there was any plan to just finish whatever it was, a car length in front of Carl. But when he said he was out, he was out. Like I said, typically the car will still pick up fuel for a lap and a half there. Honestly when Carl closed up to us going down the back, I thought he was going to go around us. I haven't heard for sure, but I'm assuming he was probably in the same situation as us where he was starting to stumble a little bit.
"Like I said, when I made the call to go into full fuel save, it was really just the confidence I had in Brad through that whole 70-lap run that he does such a good job with saving fuel when we need to that I had confidence enough that, you know what, I think we can pull it off this way. Our chances are pretty good, and kind of rolled with it. I knew it was going to be close, but that's what ultimately made it so exciting at the end," Wolfe said.
Despite the importance of saving fuel on the way to Victory Lane, no team would have set themselves up for a win without having figured out the new downforce package. According to Wolfe, it had a huge impact on the race.
"There was [sic] a lot of factors this weekend with it being a repaved track, the first race on the track. It's always a challenge for Goodyear and NASCAR to figure out what tire combination to bring, and these repaved tracks tend to build a lot of heat in the tire, so you've got to build something with some durability. It's always a challenge to get that balance. Sometimes that leads to the cars not driving as good as maybe some may like, but ultimately we got the best drivers in the business in this garage.
"I think we saw some guys lose it tonight, but I think the cars are tough to drive and a challenge, and I think that's what separates the guys that can rise to the occasion and the ones that can't," Wolfe said.
Even though Keselowski can save fuel better than most, he wasn't all by himself at the checkered flag. He beat second-place finisher, Carl Edwards, by a margin of less than two-tenths of a second. How nervous was Wolfe?
"I felt good about it until the 19 closed up to us, and when he (Keselowski) first said he felt like it stumbled, that was about with two to go," Wolfe said. "Typically we feel like you usually can get maybe a lap and a half when you feel it first stumble, as much as he was saving. So I still felt pretty good about it, until he said with one to go, 'I'm out, I'm out again,' and the 19 had closed up within two car lengths. We got into Turn 1, he said it picked up fuel again, he able to go, and I think he said it shut off a little bit down the back. As he got into the corner again it picked up, and then once we were coming off 4 ... he was still under power, and I felt like we had it at that point."
The win was the team's fourth of the season, which locks the No. 2 team into the Chase. Though other teams with wins are virtually guaranteed their spots, Keselowski is the only driver currently locked in. With back-to-back wins, the team carries momentum into New Hampshire. Stay tuned to see if any other team can catch them.
Stacey Owens lives just outside Music City USA. She's always wanted to be a NASCAR writer, so working as a columnist and support editor for Skirts and Scuffs allows her to live that dream every single weekend.
The sole NASCAR enthusiast in her home, she's hopeful that one of her three daughters might also harbor an appreciation for NASCAR, but it isn't looking good so far.
This self-admitted grammar nerd also loves country music, though she can't carry a tune; collegiate football, though she needs a lot of work on her spiral; and Kentucky basketball, even though at 6' tall, she's never played a day in her life.