Loudon, N.H., Sept. 13, 2003 -- Just about the only words you hear in Winston Cup racing these days are "track position" and "fuel mileage," followed closely by "pit strategy" and "aero push." At New Hampshire International Speedway, one has to...
Loudon, N.H., Sept. 13, 2003 -- Just about the only words you hear in Winston Cup racing these days are "track position" and "fuel mileage," followed closely by "pit strategy" and "aero push." At New Hampshire International Speedway, one has to deal with all four at the same time if one hopes to become a winner at "The Magic Mile."
Ricky Craven, New England's favorite son, was bitten by the fuel mileage bug here in July, costing him an almost-sure top-five finish. He was running second to Jeff Gordon, who had been nearly untouchable through the early and middle stages of the race, when his Tide Pontiac Grand Prix coughed dry. As you can imagine, it was a frustrating way for Craven to end the day. He finished 21st, about 19 spots worse than he had a reason to expect.
Headed into Sunday's Sylvania 300, Craven has an idea of what he expects from his Tide ride. "Obviously, we'd like to get a little better fuel mileage, and a half-gallon of gas would make a big difference," he laughed, although it was a somewhat forced chuckle. "The fact is we didn't get the fuel mileage the other teams got. As a result, we ended up having to stop, which was very disappointing, because I don't believe we could have beaten Jeff Gordon. He drove away from us, but we drove away from Ryan Newman. Essentially, we came up a half-gallon short."
Having to pit here under the green is virtually a kiss of death for any hope of winning the race, especially if the stop occurs with less than 100 laps to go. The pit window for Winston Cup cars here is around 95 laps. "It was the track position," Craven said of his July tribulations. "It's really not much different from Indianapolis or Phoenix. Flat tracks are the most challenging for these race cars. They are so evenly matched. The separation is just a tenth or two between a good car and a mediocre car. A tenth or two is just not enough to get alongside a guy on a flat race track because of the issues that go along with it: being behind someone and losing the air off the front of your car. You take a car that is a tenth or two faster than the car in front of you, and as you're catching him, your car is actually becoming inferior. When you get really close, you become a tenth or two slower. You back off and get some air on the nose and you can make another charge. But that process takes five or six laps per car, so it's almost impossible to recover from that."
It was the fuel mileage that killed Craven's hopes of a hometown victory. "You can't wish for more fuel, you can't hope for more fuel," he said. "The fact is, the package we started the race with ended up costing us. If the caution had come out with 98 or 88 laps to go--it has so much to do with the way the race unfolded and less to do with what we had. The way it turned out, it had a lot to do with our fuel mileage. That's what we have to be careful of right now. If we come into this race with the idea that we have to do everything we can to save fuel, there'll be 36 cautions on Sunday and fuel will be irrelevant. You can't play that game. The fact is that some days are not your day and some days you get damn lucky. Over the long haul, that probably evens out.
"We ran top-10 all day. We made the car better during the race to be a top-5 car. We still weren't going to beat the 24 unless he had a problem. All those things got us there, and we were missing that one piece."
You might ask yourself how a driver can conserve fuel during a race, where the entire object is to go faster than the other 42 drivers. Going faster means more power, which, with the notable exception of Daytona and Talladega, means more fuel is burned. GM Racing engineer Ron Sperry addressed that issue here at New Hampshire from the engine tuner's perspective.
"The key to this is cam timing," he said. "Ideally, you'd like to have the intake valve and the exhaust valve closed at the same time in the cylinder, which traps the air/fuel mixture and allows it to be burned efficiently to produce optimum power. You have to pull all the fuel and air down toward the combustion chamber so it can be burned together. There's an infinite number of ways to do that, whether it's tuning individual cylinders, the intake plenum, or what have you. It's really a knife edge you're walking. If you get that air/fuel mixture too lean, you can burn a piston. It's really a fuel distribution issue inside the engine."
Essentially, Sperry said the idea is to make as much power as possible while being as efficient as possible in the process. Engine combinations--valves, cam, engine timing, etc.--play a major role in that process.
Craven will start Sunday's race 21st, alongside fellow Pontiac ace Johnny Benson. The Sylvania 300 is scheduled for 1 p.m. and will be telecast live on TNT.