Denny Hamlin's track record in fuel mileage races is well-documented – and it's not good.
Numerous times, fuel mileage has prevented the driver from winning races and even helped cost him a championship in 2010.
In Saturday night's NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, however, Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb finally played the fuel-mileage game to their advantage – and the result was a hard-fought runner-up finish.
"It was good to have a fuel-mileage race somewhat go our way," Hamlin said. "Darian made the gutsy call to bring us in and lose all of our track position in the middle of the race, which I was kind of frustrated with. But obviously, he knew what he was doing and we saved the fuel that we needed, and we slowed down just enough to finish second."
The finish in the Bank of America 500 was a far different than it was two weeks ago at Dover, when Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch were forced to pit with 10 laps to go and forfeit their top running positions.
Afterward, Busch loudly called out Toyota for what he perceived to be its inability to get better fuel mileage, while Hamlin tried his best to swallow yet another race where the numbers on the calculator worked against him.
So what was the difference Saturday night compared to Dover that allowed Hamlin to make it to the end without stopping? The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said it had nothing to do with a change by his team in philosophy or pre-race strategy; it was simply how the cautions fell.
Regardless of what prompted the change, Hamlin leaves Charlotte in excellent shape as he pursues his first Sprint Cup Series championship. The second-place finish moved him to within 15 points of Brad Keselowski for the overall lead. Even better, Hamlin heads to next week's race at Kansas having won there in April.
But in spite of what should be considered a successful night, Hamlin couldn't help but lament a race that he seemed poised to win. After all, in the closing laps, he was quicker than leader Clint Bowyer. However, because he was in fuel conservation mode, Hamlin was unable to race as hard as he wanted to and allowed Bowyer to pad a lead that he was able to maintain all the way to the finish.
All this left Hamlin wondering: What if?
"It's tough because I'm sitting there thinking, I can go by this 15 (Bowyer) or catch him just about any time I want, but Darian is screaming at me to back it off," he said. " ... It'll be interesting to see how much fuel we had left and whether we could have cut the reins a little bit sooner and passed the 15. We just needed one more lap."