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When It Comes To IndyCar Fuel Strategy, Don't Believe a Word

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Don't Believe A Word

'Don't believe me if I tell you
Not a word of this is true
Don't believe me if I tell you
Especially if I tell you that we've got plenty of fuel'

- Paraphrase of the great Irish poet and band leader,
Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy

When Andretti Autosport's Tony Kanaan rolled into the pits at Watkins Glen for a splash and go fuel stop on lap 59 of the 60-lap Camping World GP at The Glen, the intense Brazilian was running in eighth place and just six laps removed from his fastest lap of the race.

The stop, which lasted less than 10 seconds in the pit box, totally derailed all hope of a Top-10 finish for Kanaan and may just have hung a "Closed" sign on his IndyCar championship hopes. He returned from the sojourn in 21st place, the last car on the lead lap, and posted his worst finish in almost a full year.

The result represented a total breakdown in the Andretti team's fuel strategy - three stops proved to be catastrophic without the usual predicted late caution and only two short yellow flag periods in the race. But if Kanaan's race strategist Tom Anderson had been polled by the crack crew of pit reporters (as Roger Penske was interviewed in the closing laps), he would have sworn up and down that Kanaan had plenty of fuel-grade ethanol in the tank for a flat-out, fun-tastic finish.

In the world of race day fuel strategy, disinformation is the name of the game. Subterfuge and counterespionage are both accepted facts of life.

And the lies often last well past the end of the race.

Mike Conway's spectacular vault over Ryan Hunter-Reay into the catch fence ensured that the 2010 Indy 500 ended under a yellow flag for race winner and milk chugger Dario Franchitti, and no less than runner-up Dan Wheldon swore that Dario was already running on fumes when the light froze the field (side note to Dapper Dan Wheldon, we can probably do without the Night At The Roxbury beats on your website, thanks).

"You'll certainly never know, but I'd be interested to see how much fuel is in both cars when they come out of tech," Wheldon said in the post-Indy 500 press conference. "I'd certainly say we were closing him down at a high rate (before the yellow), but it's difficult to answer that one."

Should be easy enough to answer, right? Wrong. The nod-and-a-wink crew were just getting started.

Of course, Franchitti's team owner Chip Ganassi made a big point of stating there was plenty of juice in Dario's Dallara in victory lane.

Q. Chip, how much fuel was left?

CHIP GANASSI: 1.6 gallons.

Q. How far will that take you?

CHIP GANASSI: I have no idea.

Q. Was there going to be enough to get him to the end if it had remained under green flag conditions? How fearful were you that Wheldon could have picked you off?

CHIP GANASSI: I don't think he could have picked us off, but I think he could have passed us. A lot of those guys are kicking themselves because they ended up with fuel left over at the end of the race. The worst thing you want to do is have some control over the fuel either with a switch or the 'push to pass' button. The worst thing you can do, and we've done it, is come up second in this race or third and have fuel in your tank that you didn't use, you could have used more of it.

But that's this race. I mean, that's what it's like when you go into the last three laps or two laps and there's a yellow, white flag and then there's a yellow.

That all sounded well and good and might have made for an interesting footnote to Franchitti winning his second Indy 500 (his weather-shortened 2007 victory also came under a rain-soaked yellow flag condition).

Except for the fact that Chip had no idea how much ethanol was in the tank, and there was no way he could have known.

And far from simple, Chip would have certainly known as race strategist that under wide-open throttle, green-flag conditions at Indy 3.9-4.0 miles per gallon is pretty much the accepted number made by most cars in the field, which would have left Dario roughly two-and-a-half laps in the clear.

On paper that sounds great. Dario could have even spooled up for a couple NASCAR-style green/white/checker finishes and still had time to wave at the fans. Except that it was an outright lie.

"That's all horse(bleep)," another team's crew chief told me after the race. "If (Franchitti) had 1.6 gallons left at the end, that would have been more than we had him down for. There's no way he would have finished (under green flag conditions). He would have ended up just like Hunter-Reay."

And therein lies the rub in the fuel issue. Teams eavesdrop on other teams' radio communications and plot the predicted fuel consumption by other contenders during the race, based on both lap times and refueling times in pit stops.

For their part, code words also obfuscate the nature of radio instructions; on one team "good to go" might mean drive conservatively for two or three more laps, then start pedaling full-out. Or perhaps the strategist might not even tell the driver the whole story knowing the lines of communication are open. Wheldon admitted as much after his runner-up finish in the 500.

"But we had a little story during the Long Beach race that (his engineer) told me," Wheldon said. "I had an idea that he was telling me what we call a fib in England, which is a lie, which way you want to look at it. When it went green for that last stint, he told me I was good to go. I had that feeling he was telling a little story then.

"I took it upon myself to save fuel early on in that stint. I was lifting through the middle of every corner at one point just to kind of set myself up for the end... It allowed me to basically maintain that pace right up until the end of the race where a lot of the other cars dropped off."

IndyCar officials confirmed that fuel is drained and tested in post-race tech inspection, but it is not measured. So there was no way Ganassi would have known how much corn juice remained. But still he had the convincing answer and number ready for cross examination. Attention to detail has always been a Target Chip Ganassi Racing trademark.

Which brings us back to Kanaan's awful finish at The Glen. At the sometimes dysfunctional Andretti Autosports, in-race pit stops are controlled by each team's strategist, rather that by an overall team plan. Thus Hunter-Reay (p7) and Marco Andretti (p13) both made two stops, while Kanaan, Adam Carroll and Danica Patrick all made three visits to pit lane.

Kanaan got caught out short as the field chewed up the last 55 or so miles under green flag conditions and as a result went from 45 points behind in the season standings to a much more harrowing 86 points in back of championship leader Will Power.

Don't believe a word
For words are only spoken
Your heart is like a promise
Made to be broken

Don't believe a word
Words can tell lies
And lies are no comfort
When there's tear in your eyes

- Phil Lynott Don't Believe A Word

For Kanaan, the quest for the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series championship could have ended at The Glen for the want of a few drops of alcohol.

Sadly that was never a problem for the late, great Phil Lynott.