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Price of gas runs high for Bowyer

By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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LOUDON, N.H. - No truth to the rumor that the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will be renamed the Chase for a Few More Drops of Gasoline.

For the second week in a row - and the second year in a row at New Hampshire Motor Speedway - fuel mileage and gambling helped determine which car crossed the finish line first.

Tony Stewart, who lost here last year when he ran out of gas with two laps left, benefited yesterday when the fuel tank of leader Clint Bowyer’s car ran dry, also with two laps left. It allowed Stewart to capture his second win in a week, and it’s pushed him from barely qualifying for the Chase field to the points lead.

Bowyer, the hard-luck loser, knows exactly how Stewart feels: When Stewart’s fuel tank hit empty last year, it was Bowyer who took over the late-race lead and went on to victory.

Stewart also captured the first Chase race in Chicago seven days ago, when other lead cars pushed their fuel estimates to the limit and paid the price in the final few laps. Perhaps learning from last year’s gamble, Stewart was thrilled this year’s paid off, even though it has the appearance of two drivers exchanging gifts 12 months apart.

“Clint was just a tick better than us,’’ Stewart said. “I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. I knew we were two [laps] to the good.’’

Bowyer had taken the lead on Lap 250, and had made his last pit stop for fuel on Lap 226. Completing 74 laps at NHMS on one fill-up is always a stretch.

Coming off the Chicago race, fuel mileage had been one of the hot topics before yesterday’s Sylvania 300. The way this one went, it’s an issue that figures to get louder as the Chase continues.

“I don’t think it’s bad racing, personally, but I know there’s people that do,’’ said Brad Keselowski, who had no fuel problems and finished second. “I think, for the most part, the fastest car ends up winning the race. I know there’s been a lot of people talking about fuel-mileage racing dominating the sport, or being bad for it, but I think there’s been a lot of races that haven’t been decided on fuel mileage, so it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to me.’’

Said Greg Biffle, who was in the top 10 all day and finished third: “Really, every race is a fuel-mileage race if it has a green-flag pit stop in it. Sometimes you can chalk it up to a fuel-mileage win, and sometimes you’re leading and it comes to a stretch and you just make it, similar to what [Stewart] did today.

“There’s been true fuel-mileage races, where a guy is running in the back of the pack, jumps into the pits with one [stop] to go, fills it up, and that guy wins. That’s a fuel-mileage win, when you’re a 20th-place car and you win. But when you’re a top-three car or a top-four car and you win, it really isn’t any different.’’

Bowyer - who didn’t make himself available to the media after he fell from the lead to 26th - wasn’t the only one who gambled and lost. Denny Hamlin, despite starting 28th, had worked his way into fifth, and was told by crew chief Mike Ford on Lap 288, “turn it loose, you’re good to go.’’ He was, until Lap 297, when he ran out of gas.

“We thought we were good. Either we weren’t getting the fuel mileage we thought or we didn’t get [the tank] full or I just used too much,’’ said Hamlin, who dropped from fifth to 29th. “Another tough day for us.’’

Said Ford: “I fully expected to have about three laps extra. It was kind of a shocker.’’

Bowyer knows the feeling.

Michael Whitmer can be reached at