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Auto racing: Fuel-mileage race at TMS looms for Johnson

FORT WORTH, Texas — Jimmie Johnson, the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup leader, likes nearly everything about Texas Motor Speedway.

It is an all-out speed track. The racing groove has widened through the years. It is a 1 ½-mile track, which plays to the strength of Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports.

Despite all the apparent advantages that come with TMS, Johnson cannot shake two words.

“Fuel mileage,” Johnson said.

The most ominous words in NASCAR this season.

Fuel-mileage races have become more common in the Cup and Nationwide series. Brad Keselowski is second to Johnson in the Chase because of three wins based on fuel mileage.

If form holds, the Cup AAA Texas 500 at TMS on Sunday will turn into a fuel-mileage spectacular. Long green-flag runs produce fuel-mileage races. Each of the last six Cup races at TMS has had a green-flag run of at least 100 laps. The spring race went the final 234 laps under green.

“Running the race backwards basically,” said Denny Hamlin.

Can the driver squeeze enough out of his tank to finish, or will he suffer the embarrassment of running out of fuel?

This can produce a change at the top of the Chase. Fuel-mileage races, Johnson’s weakness, can be fluky.

“We’re getting better at it,” Johnson said. “There are some teams out there doing a little better job in reserving, not using, getting better mileage. We’re in the ballpark for once, which is nice.”

The fuel cell on a Cup car has a capacity of 18 gallons. Fuel-mileage ranges from about 4 to 5 mpg.

Push the car hard, and it will go about 49 laps on a full tank at TMS. Baby the car, and the driver can stretch a full tank for about 58 laps.

Keselowski and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, have excelled. They won two of the first three Chase races, at Chicago and Dover, through fuel-mileage decisions.

Wolfe, who had 16 Nationwide starts as a driver, said the key is convincing the driver that a race is not just about going fast all the time.

“Paul has an approach that understands racing at a level that’s unprecedented to me to see from a crew chief,” Keselowski said. “He understands the compromises that racing consists of, between speed, handling, long run, short run, weather. He understands all those balancing acts that you have to constantly make.”

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