To finish under green, teams focus on fuel, pit stops

Posted: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

ATLANTA Gentleman, start your strategizing.

NASCAR's premier racing series makes a fundamental change in its rules with this Sunday's Siemens 300. The adoption of the "Green-Flag Finish" rule to prevent races from ending under caution means teams can no longer base their strategies on a pre-determined number of miles or laps.

Under the rule, a caution in the waning laps will extend the race. Once the track is cleared and ready for racing, the field will restart and race for two laps.

Races could measure several more laps or miles than originally scheduled, depending on how long the caution flag comes out in a race's final laps. The rule extended last weekend's Craftsman Truck Series race by 14 laps, equal to 17.5 miles.

Nextel Cup races won't last that long. The truck race included four restarts because of wrecks during the final two laps. Cup races will have only one restart. If an accident brings out a caution following that restart, the race will finish under caution.

Even so, Sunday's Siemens 300 could turn into the Siemens 303. And with race teams calculating gas mileage down to the last lap, the new rule could influence the outcome.

"We run distances, long distances, and so many times fuel mileage comes into play," driver Ken Schrader said. "This isn't like adding extra innings in baseball or an overtime period in basketball. It's like stopping everything and starting from scratch except this time, we're just running two laps."

Points leader Jimmie Johnson said he expects many teams to figure three additional laps into their fuel calculations, which in some cases would require an extra pit stop.

"Until something goofy shakes out, most teams have to figure the race three laps longer," he said. "Your fuel window will shift and move. You'll see the outcome change."

NASCAR officials said Tuesday they will not change their caution-period rules for yellow flags that come out in the final laps. The pits will be open as soon as possible and teams can make any adjustments they want, from changing tires to just topping off gas tanks.

Those who do stop, though, will sacrifice track position. Frontrunners will likely have to gamble on fuel.

"If I am leading the race, I am probably not going to like it very much," driver Jeff Green said. "But if I have plenty of fuel and I'm second place on back, yeah, I'm really in favor of it."

The rule could affect races at some tracks more than others. Those with surfaces with less grip will tempt some drivers to pit for tires during a late caution.

Johnson listed four tracks where new tires would make the biggest difference in the final laps: Las Vegas, Michigan, Fontana and Darlington. Darlington will play host to one of the 10 races that make up the season-ending "Chase for the Championships."

"I don't think you're in a safe situation if you're the leader with (old) tires," Johnson said. "The last thing you want to be is the first with old tires."

With all those variables, the new rule is sure to add excitement to races from a fan's perspective. Four of the last 10 Nextel Cup races have finished under caution.

Fans have responded to the yellow-flag finishes by showering drivers with boos and the track with beer cans. Former Cup driver Bobby Hamilton, who currently races on the Craftsman Truck Series, blames attendance drops on the yellow-flag finishes.

"I just know the last few years in Cup I'd go to the racetrack and see empty seats," he said. "We need that. That needs to change."

That's one strategy that's already been set.

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