Sweet Home Chicago
Stewart Successfully Saves Fuel En Route to Victory at Chicagoland Speedway
The hood of Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet read “Printing Done Right.” But after stretching his fuel mileage over the final 52 laps to win Monday’s rain-postponed Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., the slogan could’ve read “Winning Done Right.”
Stewart rallied from his 26th-place starting spot to win his series-best third Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland and the 40th of his career, which tied him with Mark Martin for 16th on the all-time Sprint Cup win list.
“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago.
Beyond the milestones, however, the win proved even more important, for it came in the first round of the 10-race, 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup and vaulted Stewart from ninth in the standings to second, just seven points behind new series leader Kevin Harvick.
“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago,” said Stewart, who also ended a 32-race winless streak by scoring his first win of 2011 and his first since winning at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., last October. “This Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy was awesome. We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year (to win) that we let get away from us. We’ve had a miserable year, by our standards. But the last three weeks we’ve really started coming into it. We had a really good run in Atlanta. Good solid run last week at Richmond, and then to come out of this weekend with a win is awesome.
“Going into the race, I don’t think Darian (Grubb, crew chief) or I thought we had as good a car as we thought we needed to win today, but it didn’t take long in the race to figure out we were pretty solid.”
As strong as Stewart and his Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy were, the race came down to fuel mileage. Thanks to Stewart-Haas Racing’s (SHR) new team partner Mobil 1, Stewart and Co. were able to take full advantage of the technology advantage they enjoy with Mobil 1.
“Mobil 1’s engine oil, chassis lubricants, gear oil – even their power steering fluid – helped get us to the end,” said Stewart, who made his final pit stop on lap 214 for fuel only. “It’s about reducing friction, heat and rolling resistance, and standing here in victory lane, I’d say their stuff did a pretty good job of that.”
Stewart led four times for 35 laps in the 267-lap race around the 1.5-mile oval on the outskirts of Chicago, but his march to the checkered flag began once the final caution of the day occurred on lap 214 for debris in turn two. After getting around Matt Kenseth for the lead on lap 209, Stewart led until the caution came out, and once the caution was out, Stewart and Grubb decided to pit for fuel only and hope they could nurse their machine to the end without having to stop again.
Nearly everyone, save for Martin Truex Jr., hit pit road for fuel, and every driver and crew chief knew that without another caution, conservation would be key.
When the race restarted on lap 218, Truex had the lead. Kenseth was second as he beat Stewart off pit road by mere inches. Kenseth took the lead from Truex on lap 218, but only for a lap, as Truex reasserted his presence up front by pacing the field from lap 219 to lap 227. Kenseth got back around Truex on lap 228 and was in the top spot for the next 10 laps. All the while, Stewart ran in third.
All three drivers had to save fuel, Truex more so than Kenseth and Stewart, as he did not pit with the rest of the leaders on lap 215 and therefore had less fuel. Despite saving gas, Stewart managed to pass Kenseth on lap 238 and held the lead for the next 13 circuits, all the while doing everything he could to make sure his Office Depot/Mobil 1 machine had enough fuel to carry him to the finish.
In order to save gas, Stewart had to let Truex by on lap 251 and give up first place for two laps – an anxious time for both Stewart and Grubb. But both knew there was no way the math could work in Truex’s favor, and when Truex peeled off the track and onto pit road on lap 253, Stewart retook the lead.
From there, Stewart brought his car home to a well-earned victory, finishing .941 of a second ahead of runner-up Harvick.
“At the end, you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” said Stewart, who has at least one win in each of his 13 seasons in Sprint Cup – the longest such streak among active drivers. “But that’s just the way the caution came out. And we came in and got fuel and Darian told me we had to save a lap’s worth of fuel. So we had a whole run to do it. But we kept a lot of pressure on Matt (Kenseth) and finally got by him, and once we got out to a second and-a-half, two-second lead, we could start backing off to their pace and start saving fuel.
“I felt like I’d saved enough fuel to get us to the end. But when we came off of turn two after we got the checkered, the fuel pressure gauge was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flagstand. We didn’t do any wild burnouts or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road. So, we were closer than I wanted to be. But we didn’t have anything to lose. Where we’re at in the Chase right now, we had to press, and I was glad I saved as much as I did. But I had a good enough car to get us there, and Darian and his calls gave us the opportunity to get to the lead.”
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 U.S. Army Medicine Chevrolet Impala for SHR, led twice for 18 laps before finishing eighth. It was his 14th top-10 finish of 2011 and his sixth top-10 result in 10 career Sprint Cup starts at Chicagoland.
The last time both SHR drivers finished in the top-10 was just last weekend at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. Stewart finished seventh, while Newman was eighth.
Newman is also in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. He came into Chicagoland seeded eighth, nine points out of first. Newman is now seventh in the standings, but tied with sixth-place Keselowski, 14 points out of the top spot. (Keselowski gets the sixth spot because he has three wins this season to Newman’s one.)