By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- When crew chief Chad Knaus told Jimmie Johnson that he'd have to squeeze 89 laps out of his final tank of fuel, Johnson wasn't happy -- because he knew the implications.
With a car capable of winning, Johnson instead had to back down his lap times drastically to save enough fuel to get to the end of Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Ultimately, Johnson saved enough gas to finish fourth, a better result than that achieved by Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, who had to pit late for fuel and came home seventh and eighth, respectively. But it was hardly a satisfying conclusion for Johnson, who surrendered the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lead to race winner (and master fuel conservationist) Brad Keselowski.
"For starters, we're not very good at fuel-mileage races," Johnson said frankly. "So, when I heard that, I'm like, 'Man, we're in big trouble.' And (Knaus) asked me to start saving fuel. And I doubled the distance out of the gate just to make sure that I did enough to get us to the end. So, it's tough; it really is.
"But we have a handful of races that come down to it each year and we've worked to get better at it. And this is like the second of 15 or something that we've attempted to finish in a low-fuel situation and got it done. So I'm improving and we're improving. I wish we could have raced for it. We finally got control of the race, late, but it just didn't unfold like a normal race here."
FUEL WOES FRUSTRATE HAMLIN, TOO
Denny Hamlin did everything right -- well, almost everything -- but stretching his fuel for the final 89 laps was beyond the capabilities of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Forced to pit from the lead with nine laps left in Sunday's race, Hamlin, the pole winner, finished eighth and lost nine points to the series lead, now held by Keselowski.
"It's so frustrating," said Hamlin, who ran in the top three all afternoon before the late pit stop. "It's like all the hard work you do -- it doesn't pay off. We choose to have the horsepower over the fuel mileage, and some guys don't tune that way. When you have a race-winning car, you don't want to give up any of the horsepower.
"It's frustrating. They're not going to beat us on the track -- that's just plain and simple. We're just too fast right now, and I feel like everything is going well. These strategy games, and the way these cautions are falling, it's ill-timed. These cautions fly when some people can and some people can't make it. It's messing everything up.
"We need to improve our fuel mileage -- we know that -- and we'll work on that as much as anything. For me, I'm not too discouraged, because we ran our ass off today."
HANDLING, ACCIDENT KNOCK OUT KENSETH
Matt Kenseth's final Chase with Roush Fenway Racing hasn't gone according to plan -- to say the least.
At a track where the Roush cars are traditionally strong, Kenseth struggled. Throughout the day he fought the handling of his No. 17 Ford. On Lap 309 he hit the outside wall in Turn 2. Moments after a restart on Lap 317, with his car still damaged, he wrecked in Turn 4.
The resulting 35th-place finish dropped Kenseth to 12th in the Chase standings, 72 points behind Keselowski and, for practical purposes, out of contention for the championship.
"In two out of three Chase races something either fell off or broke, so obviously that's not good," said Kenseth, who will drive the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing next year. "Our performance hasn't been very good either, so I don't know.
"Today was a struggle. This is probably the worst we've run here for as long as I can remember. We just really missed it. From the first lap on the track to the last lap on the track we were pretty much junk. Everybody is trying hard, but we just missed it."