Gas mileage can make or break a driver

Fill 'er up

Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2002

You can win a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race while crossing the finish line on your roof. Ask Ken Schrader.

You can win with shredded tires and the hood flapping against the fenders. Ask Jeff Burton.

You can win with an engine that's belching white smoke before it explodes at the checkered flag. Ask Darrell Waltrip.

You can't win, however, without gasoline. Ask anybody.

Race victories come in a variety of ways. Some are lucky; others are the result of flawless strategy, like picking correctly on taking no tires, two tires or four tires on the final pit stop.

Fast cars and perfect strategy, however, are useless when the gas gauge reads ''empty.''

''You can't make a mistake,'' said Danny ''Chocolate'' Myers, a gas man for Robby Gordon's Chevrolet. ''You have to make sure you get all the gas in the car that you can. If you spill it or you don't get it full, you can run out. It's happened to all of us, and it's not any fun.''

Myers, a burly man with his own fan club, is the most famous gas man in stock-car racing. He hoisted 85-pound gas cans on his shoulder for six of Dale Earnhardt's seven Winston Cup championships. Myers is at his best when it comes to a fill-up at high speed.

At 4.3 miles a gallon at most speedways it doesn't take long to run out. Despite all the precise calculations and thousands of miles of racing history to rely on, teams still find a way to run out.

While gasoline remains an afterthought most of the time, there's nothing routine about the fuel or the role it plays in every race.

There are a variety of reasons for running out: a malfunctioning fuel pump or carburetor, fuel that's trapped in the corner of the gas tank, a simple miscalculation.

Most fuel shortages, however, come at the end of the race. It's when race teams try to skip a pit stop with the hope of having just enough to finish the race.

A driver can conserve gasoline by staying behind other cars. That reduces wind resistance. Or he can lift off the gas pedal earlier than normal heading into the turns and get back on the gas later than planned coming off the corner. And he can pray for caution laps, when speeds are reduced to a crawl. Idling at 65 mph uses half as much gas.

''You see guys stretching their fuel mileage late in the race to win,'' Myers said. ''A lot of races are won and lost on fuel mileage. But nobody wins on fuel mileage in the first 100 miles. If you don't have gas, you're not going very far. You don't think about gas until you're out.''

Myers said he vividly remembers the 1986 Daytona 500, when Earnhardt lost the lead with less than five miles to go when his Chevrolet ran out of gas. The time it took for him to coast onto pit road and for the team to get the car restarted allowed Geoffrey Bodine to win the race.

The next year Earnhardt won the spring race at Darlington, S.C., when Bill Elliott miscalculated his fuel mileage. Elliott's Ford ran out in the third turn of the final lap, and that allowed Earnhardt to sneak past for an unexpected victory.

A year ago at Atlanta, Jerry Nadeau had a 350-yard lead on the final lap when his Chevrolet and his luck ran dry. His car coasted to the finish line, but not before four other cars passed him.

Earnhardt, Elliott and Nadeau are proof you can't win without gasoline.

Schrader, who flipped on his roof while winning the Twin 125 qualifying race at Daytona in 1987; Burton, who crashed while leading when rain brought an early finish in the 1999 Southern 500; and Waltrip, whose engine caved in at the finish line in the 1985 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., are proof you always have a chance as long as there's at least one drop of gas left in the tank.

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