LONG POND, Pa. - What Winston Cup points leader Matt Kenseth calls "the gas thing" had almost every competitor in the Pennsylvania 500 Winston Cup race here in a state of mental distress.
The only driver who didn't have a headache was Ryan Newman, the pole sitter. He somehow managed to stay calm when he fell back in the field early in the race. His crew picked the right times for pit stops, to put him at the front of the field when it mattered. And, cautions fell at the perfect times for him to stretch his fuel supply far enough to hold off a big charge from Kurt Busch over the final 10 laps and win the race.
"There was some pressure," said Newman, 25, who drives the No. 12 Dodge. "But, really, it was just a matter of how fast I could go compared to how fast the driver behind me could go. ... When it came down to those last laps, my crew chief told me I had plenty of gas. They gave me the go ahead and I just put the pedal to the metal and did the best job I could. Apparently it was good enough."
It was good enough to win by 0.307 of a second over Busch's No. 97 Ford.
"I thought we could get him," said Busch, who rallied from 33rd after a sway bar came loose. "But he was just too strong off Turn 3 and then down that long front straightaway."
Newman's win was his fourth of the season and his third in his past eight races. In that time he has climbed from 24th in the points race to ninth.
The victory, the way it came - keyed by gas mileage and track position - left many frustrated at the end of the 200-lap race.
"We had a great car," said Rusty Wallace, who hasn't won in 82 races. "But we were so conservative on our pit calls. We were basing everything on the race going green the rest of the way and we wouldn't have enough fuel."
Wallace was running second to Newman on Lap 164 when he suddenly pitted for a gulp of fuel and fell to 16th as a caution flag emerged.
"Ryan said, 'To heck with that [the conservative strategy]. We hope we have some cautions and we hope we can make it on fuel,' " Wallace said. "They gambled and it paid off and that's what we've got to do more of ... I love my guys. But I bet in the last two years 10 victories have gone sour because of pit problems."
Wallace was no more irked than Kenseth, who at one point found himself on pit road with just three other cars.
"We've been a little conservative on the gas mileage thing," he said. "We had a second or third-place car and finished 13th with it. You just can't do that. I think we were a little better than Kurt and he finished second. ... I'm just mad. I don't care where anyone else finished. I feel like we're running good enough to beat those guys and finish in front of them.
"They [his crew chief] said that's all the fuel we had, but, I don't know, everybody else made it and got some cautions, so we need to look that over and figure out what's wrong."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who moved into second place in points with his third-place finish here at Pocono International Raceway, voiced his own frustration over the need for fuel strategy.
"I hate when they tell me to conserve fuel," Earnhardt said. "I've never had anyone in my whole life tell me how to conserve fuel. I've been around a long time and I don't think anyone knows. I just put the car in high gear, push in the clutch and coast down the backstretch and hope that saves some."
Four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon never got to the point where he had to worry about fuel. He rallied from a 25th starting position to run in the top 10 until Lap 125, when he was hit from behind and crashed into the third-turn wall. Gordon finished 36th.
"It was like a train wreck," Gordon said, as he dropped to third in the standings, 308 points behind.
It was difficult from the beginning to make up ground in this race. The driver who could get his car in the lead looked like he was driving a car on steroids. Newman, Rusty Wallace, Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Busch and Earnhardt were among those who took turns in dominating the field.
"It's kind of like you have this barren sea," said Earnhardt, attempting to explain the phenomena. "You drive the boat down through it. You try to follow that boat's wake in another boat. It's probably not the smoothest ride, not the easiest deal. Now put 40 boats out there. The guy that's leading, he's got the best seat in the house and he's got the easiest job. You can go fast, drive your car like you want to drive it. You don't have to worry about who is in front of you or what's happening behind you.
"You've got this big old blade [spoiler] on the back of cars and when you put the nose of your car under it, there's no air on your nose. What do you say? If you run in the tracks of the guy in front of you, you're not going to go anywhere."
That explanation did little to soothe driver angst and it only made Newman, an engineer, shrug.
"If you make all the cars alike, to flow through the air you've got to have some kind of advantage," he said. "The clean air is the advantage."