Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mark Martin on New Hampshire fuel mileage game, 'I've lost more than I've won'

Mark Martin last won at New Hampshire in 2009
KANNAPOLIS, N.C., (Sept. 18, 2013) – “Money makes the world go ‘round.” It’s a notorious phrase used in speech and song that although cliché, warrants merit.

Swap out the word “fuel” with “money” and the expression applies to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, only there is no platitude to the revised phrase. Fuel powers the sport in more ways than one, making it only appropriate that the commodity is sometimes the difference between winning and losing. Nowhere has that circumstance been more inherent than at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, site of Sunday’s Sylvania 300.

The No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet team of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) is very familiar with the importance of fuel, having experienced both ends of the spectrum on the win/loss scale when it comes to racing at New Hampshire. With Mark Martin driving in place of the injured Tony Stewart this weekend, the team looks for some redemption after finding itself on the losing end of a fuel gamble during the series’ most recent visit to the 1.058-mile oval in July.

Less than 10 weeks ago at New Hampshire, the Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops team found its No. 14 Chevrolet SS out front in the closing laps of the race and in position to score their second win in six races.

After leading for 84 laps, Stewart relinquished the lead 16 laps short of the finish as he went into fuel conservation mode. In second place on the penultimate lap, Stewart was primed for another strong run at New Hampshire, or maybe a win if race-leader Brian Vickers bobbled. But just moments after the white flag waved, signaling the race’s final lap, Stewart’s machine sputtered off turn two. Forced to coast all the way down the backstretch and through turns three and four, Stewart crossed the finish line a gut-wrenching 26th.

That certainly was an episode of dealing with the bad, but there have also been instances of good, most notably the 2011 edition of the Sylvania 300. Two years ago the No. 14 team found itself in a nearly identical situation, only they were in position to take advantage of another competitor’s foiled fuel strategy. The No. 14 led the final two laps after previous leader Clint Bowyer ran out of gas just before taking the white flag of the 300-lap race. It was Stewart’s second consecutive win and it propelled him to the 2011 Sprint Cup championship.

At this year’s Sylvania 300, the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops team will be led by Martin. The ageless veteran will make his 31st career Sprint Cup start at the Magic Mile, but first since 2011.

While two years removed from his last New Hampshire race, Martin remains rock solid in the Granite State. He is a 40-time Sprint Cup winner, the most recent of which came at New Hampshire on Sept. 20, 2009. He has two poles and nine top-fives and 14 top-10s in his 30 starts dating back to 1993 when the track first hosted the Sprint Cup Series. Through the years, Martin has proven a model of consistency with an average start of 15.3 and an average finish of 12.5. And through two decades of racing in NASCAR’s elite division at New Hampshire, Martin has completed all but 23 of the 8,863 laps available for a lap completion rate of 99.7 percent.

Thos stats, combined with the racecar Martin will pilot at New Hampshire, make the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops team’s anticipation for the Sylvania 300 palpable. The same car that nearly won at New Hampshire 10 weeks ago is the same car Martin will wheel around the tight, flat confines of the Magic Mile.

With guile and experience unmatched in NASCAR, Martin knows how to win, even when winning means conserving. And if fuel again factors into the outcome at New Hampshire, Martin’s veteran poise could portend another victory for the No. 14 team.

MARK MARTIN, Interim Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:

New Hampshire seems to have an inordinate amount of races that are decided by fuel mileage. Is that the case and if so, why?
“One of the biggest things at New Hampshire is track position, and how it’s so critical there. It’s a little more critical than a lot of places we go to in that you try to get in the window of not having to stop again, and you gamble on ‘X’ amount of cautions because new tires don’t really give you a big advantage. The tire seems to hold its speed really well, so you kind of back up that last pit stop to how far you think you can go and how many cautions you might get.”

How do you save fuel at New Hampshire?
“The easiest way to save fuel is to slow down, which is really hard to do if you’re trying to win because there’s always someone there trying to push you. The biggest challenge is, you can save a little bit of fuel and keep your speed, but if you need to save a lot, you’re going to have to lose some lap time doing it. Sometimes you can get caught in a difficult situation.”

Is fuel mileage racing like running two races in one – you’re competing against other drivers but you’re also competing with yourself in terms of how hard you can push?
“If you get caught in one of those situations where it’s real close, then it’s quite different than most races. It doesn’t always work out that way, and one caution can make the difference between you being able to run full out and having to conserve. There’s a lot of gambling going on, but it doesn’t always come down to that. Sometimes your pit stop falls right inside the window where everybody can make it. But fuel mileage races do happen quite a bit at New Hampshire where a caution will come out just in the right spot where it puts some people in a position where they might be able to gamble.”

How have you fared in fuel mileage races?
“I’ve lost more than I’ve won, but I have been more successful since ’09. I did win one years ago with Jack (Roush) on fuel mileage, but I’ve lost probably 10. In ’09 I won the Michigan race where the two cats in front of me both ran out. I knew I couldn’t race them, so I let them go and let them run on out there and they both ran out on the last lap and we made it. I’ve had some success at it in more recent times. It’s tough. You have to have a superior racecar to be in a position to save significant fuel.”

Explain a lap around New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“The corners are really sharp and fairly flat, so you use an enormous amount of brake. For a short distance, you use the maximum amount of brake that the tires can stand to get slowed down for those corners. There are multiple bank angles in both corners and you can use those multiple bank angles to encourage your car to turn, or tighten up some, or whatever. You have to know what your car is doing and pick what you want to do with those multi-banked angles to affect your car to get it to turn and to get it up off the corner going down the backstretch. There’s a crossover gate late down the backstretch that the transporters use to get into and out of the racetrack. The pavement there has settled and it’s created a pretty big bump going into turn three. It causes a lot of grief with the cars nowadays the way we run them down on the ground. That sends you into a bouncing isolation when you head off into turn three, which makes it interesting. And then in turns three and four it’s a lot of the same things you have in turns one and two. There are multi-bank angles and you’ve got to pick where you want to put your racecar to maximize the way the chassis and the tires are working. It’s tight up off the corner. The wall comes at you. You have to turn really sharp. The turns are tight there.”

It seems like good days at New Hampshire are great and off days there are really bad. Why is that?
“Qualifying is important there, but if you’ve got a good racecar, you can overcome your track position early. You can’t overcome it late. You do your best in qualifying, and after qualifying is over with you’ve got what you’ve got for a starting position and you just have to deal with it.”

How physical is racing at New Hampshire?
“It is a little bit physical, but it’s not as physical as Dover or Bristol. I think with New Hampshire being flatter, you don’t have to deal with the G-forces as much. However, New Hampshire is a very mentally taxing racetrack. It’s a challenge to get around those tight, flat corners, especially when you’re racing other cars. It’s more mentally challenging to run the race than it is physically.”

- True Speed Communication for Stewart-Haas Racing

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