Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Drivers Gearing Up for Fuel Saving to be Dominant Strategy at Talladega

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

TALLADEGA, Ala. – To fuel save or not to fuel save, that is the question.

Coming out of the Daytona 500, one of the major talking points was the rising prevalence of fuel saving at superspeedways and the effect it is having on the racing at those types of tracks.

It appears more of the same will be true when the green flag drops on Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega.

The overwhelming consensus from the driving corps will be that fuel saving will be the dominant strategy of the day. With lightning-fast pit stops in the Next Gen era and tire wear being almost nonexistent, the less time you have to spend on pit road, the better.

“Something will have to drastically change for us to not do that now,” said Joey Logano. “The whole field knows it. The whole field plays the game and I don’t see that changing.”

Tyler Reddick lamented the change to a fuel saving strategy on the superspeedway and how it had taken some of the enjoyment out of racing on these types of tracks.

“It’s not [enjoyable],” Reddick said. “Everyone’s competitive and they’re gonna try a way to do it the best, but, yeah, it’s a lot more fun to be racing hard, wide open the whole time, right? Where you’re trying to set yourself up for the stage ends.

“But in all honesty, once everyone kind of gets going wide open in this car, we kind of just stall out and there’s not a lot of movers and shakers. What’s made the moving and shaking throughout the field the last couple times has been those who are saving fuel versus those who are not. I think everyone’s just figured out that it’s just more important to save fuel than it is to go and get to the front.”

Noah Gragson added that the changed landscape brought on by the Next Gen car and its nuances on drafting tracks is only exacerbated by the need to save fuel.

While drivers may have the ability to form a third lane and run three-wide at times, it really is an optical illusion of what is really going on behind the wheel.

“Everybody’s kind of figured out that’s the best thing to do is just ride around, save fuel,” Gragson said. “Whoever can take the least amount of fuel under the pit stops, spend the least time on pit road, you cycle up to the front so you just might as well save.

“But everybody’s saving from first all the way on back, so you can go and try and make that third lane work and then you can drive up to the front. But once you get there, those guys are just gonna go harder and harder. There’s no real secret that I’ve found yet on how to do it and how to maneuver your way up there. It just seems like it’s gridlocked side by side for 20 rows and can’t go anywhere.”

Ryan Blaney, the defending winner of the fall Talladega race, said more of the same, noting that this is unfortunately the new reality with the Next Gen on the superspeedways.

“It’s unfortunate that’s just kind of how it is now,” said Blaney. “You’re saving gas to take less gas than the other people on pit road. You’re gonna make more time up that way than you are sometimes on the racetrack, especially if you have these green flag stops here. 

“It’s pretty important, so I don’t necessarily enjoy it. I know people don’t enjoy watching fuel saving, but it’s just kind of what it is nowadays on these speedways and who can take less gas than the other guy. That’s just part of it… 

“I don’t know if you’ll see maybe as aggressive. Like at Daytona that one run when me and Bell were leading the pack it was really slow. We were running slower than qualifying. I don’t know if you’ll see that aggressive because I think guys have realized that now and they’ll just push the pace and just kind of go from the back to the front because you can go from the back to the front easy if you’re running four seconds off the pace saving gas, you can just get the third lane rolling and move. 

“I think now everyone has gotten used to it and I think people have figured out how to counter it, so you might see an interesting deal there that we’re in this weird spot. A lot of guys are gonna be saving gas.”

Likewise from Denny Hamlin, who has been vocal about this issue since the aggressive nature of fuel saving in the Daytona 500 brought it to light.

“For the fan’s sake, I hope it’s not a lot, but probably we will have some,” said Hamlin. “Just simply because if that’s the nature of the game, you just want to have the shortest pit stop possible, because it is a such a track position race.

“You know, the days of Dale Earnhardt going from wherever to the front, it just isn’t possible with the way that we draft in these Next Gen cars. So, it’s all about track position. We’re just doing everything we can to have that pit stop as short as possible. And we found that not running a hundred percent through the entire race helps us do that. It’s not until that last pit stop where you see us kind of going all out.”

So, the million-dollar question is, can anything be done about it or is it too late to put the genie back in the bottle?

“Tire wear,” Logano said without missing a beat.

“Make it to where you have to put tires on the car, then you wouldn’t worry so much about fuel mileage, right? Right now, we can run a whole stint without putting tires on the car. So, it’s all about making the pit stop as short as you can. Which, how do you shorten the pit stop? Put less fuel in the car. If you’re doing fuel only, that’s what you would want to do.

“The only way you can change that in my mind is to where the cars become where they’re lifting and there’s an actual advantage to putting tires on the car. At that point you don’t care about the mileage you make ’cause you’d wanna put tires on. I don’t see another way of doing that. Even if you change the fuel tank size and all that, I don’t know if that changes it either, so until the tires wear out, I don’t see that changing.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.