Why fuel saving is under scrutiny for NASCAR

NASCAR's superspeedway racing has polarised fans and drivers

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When people think of Daytona International Speedway, they think of one of the fastest tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule with tight pack racing. However, many did not quite get that experience during Monday’s Daytona 500.

Fuel strategy is not an uncommon phenomenon, especially at superspeedways under the logic that it would mean spending less time refuelling while on pit road, but it became a bigger headache at Daytona when everyone else was doing it. This was painfully obvious as lap times slowed significantly, ending up being over 50 seconds at some points when the average time was more along the mid-to-late forties.

Although the pit window at Daytona is approximately 48 laps, the stages being slightly longer than that (the end of Stage 1 was at Lap 65 while Stage 2 concluded on Lap 130) ensured pit stops would take place under green.

To minimise time in the pits, green-flag stops ended up being mainly for fuel only while tyre changes were conducted during the stage breaks. Refuelling often takes longer than swapping tyres, which has been more apparent since the introduction of the Next Gen car due to its single lug nut wheel—a break from the traditional five-lug design—and larger fuel tank (20 gallons, compared to 18 for the Gen-6 car).

“A lot of the race was saving fuel, and we didn’t have track position for the first half of the stages and we’d be behind, and then at the end of the stages we’d charge to the front once we made our pit stop,” stated winner William Byron.

Chris Buescher, who finished 18th, added: “It was of the most frustrating races I have been a part of in a long time. Tons of fuel saving and it was all about the pit stop, one pit stop for every stage and then some massive blocks by single cars that weren’t up to speed. It is a lot different than the last go around.”

When every car is operating on the same conservative strategy and thus at around the same speeds, they naturally bunch up together in packs, which in turn increases the risk of major crashes that have become synonymous with superspeedway racing. This has become especially egregious in recent years as many drivers feel their colleagues become over-aggressive while pushing cars in front of them in the draft.

Such sentiment was shared by pole winner Joey Logano, who led a race-high 45 laps before taken out in the Big One with less than ten laps remaining.

“It happens every year,” Logano commented. He was classified 32nd after his accident. “With ten to go, there’s going to be a caution. You just hope you’re not in it and you can’t ride around. You can’t just sit there and not race because you’ll be too far back and won’t win that way.”

Since 2013, NASCAR has required drivers to “race at 100 percent of their ability.” While the rule was implemented to curb team orders, the displeasure of drivers having to let off the gas to maintain some sort of competitive pace has left many wondering if the current predicament violates this.

The debate has since reached the point where NASCAR might have to step in, though the question remains on what they could possibly do. Could they modify the flow of fuel from the tank to the car to better align with tyre changes? How viable is consulting Goodyear into making tyres that wear down quicker, thereby necessitating tyre changes in tandem with refuelling? What about simply decreasing stage lengths so that green-flag stops aren’t required?

Regardless of what they come up with, drivers will just have to put up with it in the meantime. In fact, the next race at Atlanta Motor Speedway is on another superspeedway-like track.

Justin Nguyen
Justin Nguyen
Justin Nguyen is Total-Motorsport.com's resident NASCAR aficionado and is also the off-road reporter for The Checkered Flag.
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