Bizarre season unfolds on pit road
There have been all kinds of adjectives used to describe the end of last week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Wild. Bizarre. Wacky. Crazy.
But in today’s Sprint Cup Series, crazy wins.
Crazy as in strange, unusual and sometimes outrageous strategy.
Crazy pit strategy is winning races these days, leading to some wild and wacky finishes.
The last three Sprint Cup points races have been won by drivers and teams that gambled with risky strategy on their final pit stops.
Regan Smith won his first Sprint Cup race at Darlington on May 7 when he stayed on the track while the rest of the leaders pitted with 11 laps remaining the race.
Matt Kenseth won at Dover when he took just two tires on his final pit stop while the leaders – a trio that had dominated the race – all took four.
And Kevin Harvick was the latest beneficiary, gambling on fuel mileage at Charlotte. Harvick struggled most of the race and was never a factor, but won when a host of leaders ran out of gas over the final few laps.
Not only did the Coca-Cola 600 turn into a fuel-mileage game, but the entire complexion of the race changed during the last 100 laps when drivers and teams started making two-tire pit stops, staying out, short-pitting and pulling every trick in the book to get to the front of the field.
“It was crazy,” Harvick said. “With the way that the cautions fell, with all the pit strategy … the way the pit strategy has been at Dover, has been at Darlington and you've seen these races won, you've got to be aggressive because if you're not, somebody else is.
“We've talked about that, and two or three times we made pit calls that we wouldn't normally make.”
Drivers are getting increasingly frustrated because the fastest car is not winning each week.
Instead, it’s the team that makes the right calls on pit road.
Points leader Carl Edwards led 117 laps at Dover but finished seventh when his team decided to change four tires on his last stop. He dominated the early stages of the Coca-Cola 600 but wound up 14th in the fuel-mileage game.
“We were great, but it was just a track-position game,” Edwards said of the Charlotte race. “By chance, everything that we did ended up being bad for track position.”
That’s not the way drivers like to win races. They’d prefer to do it the old-fashioned way – by outrunning the competition, or running away from the field.
And some fans prefer to see the fastest car win the race.
But late-race pit strategy is spicing up the competition, adding a bit of drama and excitement to the end of races.
Smith pulled off a huge upset with his single-car team by using pit strategy at Darlington. And Sunday’s race at Charlotte was arguably one of the most interesting races of the season.
Over the last 100 laps at Charlotte, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and finally Harvick were all in position to win the race thanks to pit strategy. And most of them had struggled most of the night.
Not only did Harvick seemingly come out of nowhere to win, but David Ragan and Joey Logano, two drivers who desperately need some positive results, finished second and third, respectively.
While the fastest car did not win, the race featured a host of bizarre twists and turns, making it more compelling than if Edwards or teammate Kenseth had won in dominant fashion.
That seems to be the name of the game this season.
With the competition as close as ever and NASCAR’s new car, new nose and new tire combining to throw some teams for a loop, passing is as difficult as ever, which means teams have to gamble on pit road to gain valuable track position.
“It doesn't matter the size of the track or how much room there is to race, track position is everything,” says five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who led 207 laps at Dover but lost the race when he, too, took four tires on his final stop while Kenseth, Mark Martin and others took only two tires or none.
Drivers used to complain about the dreaded aero push – or dirty air – making it difficult to pass, which led teams to use pit strategy to get to the front.
Johnson says that’s not the case anymore. Instead, he believes it’s just increased competition that is bunching up the field.
“To me, it's competition-related,” Johnson says. “It's the fact that these cars are running the same speed from first to 35th, that gap is smaller than ever. … With the nose changes that have been made, we've been able to get back the balance. We've been able to get the [aero] numbers back to where they were, if not better than last year's cars.
“So, it's not really that, it's more that the competition is so tight.”
Eight different drivers have won the 12 races this year while more than 20 have appeared in the top 12 in points at some point. Two drivers – Smith and rookie Trevor Bayne – have pulled off huge upsets while NASCAR has set records for both the closest finish and the most lead changes.
“Part of that [pit strategy] is just how close everybody is,” says Martin Truex Jr. “The better all the teams get, the harder it is to pass.”
NASCAR’s new points system also is a factor. The 43-to-1 system makes it more difficult to gain ground in the standings, making every position on the track even more valuable.
NASCAR’s wild-card berth into the Chase for the Sprint Cup has added another element to the equation. Teams outside the top 10 in points can get into the Chase by winning races, prompting teams to take more gambles on pit road late in races.
Even teams that have already won this year are taking more chances. Drivers like Harvick, who likely is already locked into the Chase with three wins, can be a bit more risky when it comes to piling up more race wins and collecting bonus points for when the standings are reset after 26 races.
Harvick says his team was able to gamble at Charlotte because it already had two wins this season. He also knows that’s what it takes to win today.
“We took it to another level as far as the aggressiveness of staying on the racetrack and putting two tires on and just doing things that aren't normal for us that were a little bit outside the box,” Harvick said.
“But it seems like over the past couple weeks you've got to be more aggressive and you've got to take more chances if you're going to win. You can finish seventh or eighth, but if you're going to win the race you're going to have to take some chances when all the cautions start coming out.”
It’s not the way drivers prefer to win. But they better get used to it, because pit strategy is leading to some wild and wacky finishes – and winning races.