The Frontstretch: What's Up With All the Pit Strategy? Decide Whether You Like It Because It's Not Going Anywhere by Garrett Horton -- Friday June 3, 2011

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Despite having won two races already, Kevin Harvick stunned everyone by picking up victory number three for his first career win in the Coke 600. How he won it shouldn’t be that shocking; after all, in every one of his triumphs this season he did not make the final pass for the lead until five laps or less to go. What is surprising, however, is another recent trend; that of pit strategy playing a more important part than ever.

Sunday night’s marathon marked the third consecutive race where the fastest car lost the race due to different pit tactics. In the last month, we have seen the triumphant upset by Regan Smith in one of the circuit’s most prestigious races at Darlington by holding off the fastest car in Carl Edwards, who was on four fresh tires to Smith’s two. Edwards lost again the next week in Dover after having the car to beat due to the very same strategy, this time to his teammate Matt Kenseth.

These races have established that being up front is more important than anything, and passing other cars isn’t getting any easier. By the time teams rolled into Charlotte, two tire pit stops appeared to be the key to victory. What a unique race it was on Sunday, where it looked more like an IndyCar or Grand Am race with all the different pit sequences.

So, is this new trend here to stay? Well it certainly looks like track position is more important than ever (I know, it seems like we hear that every year). The fact is Goodyear appears to have brought their best overall tire package in 2011, where teams can get by with taking only two tires, and sometimes none at all. Are these strategic races good or bad for the sport? Well, the answer is both.

The final laps between Regan Smith and Carl Edwards at Darlington were some of the best the Cup Series has seen all season…and a direct result of pit strategy playing out.

For starters, Charlotte, Dover, and Darlington have arguably been the three best non-restricted races of the year. The final ten laps at Darlington were some of the most nail-biting of the year with the uncertainty of whether Smith would be able to hold off Edwards. Dover provided a very intense battle between Jimmie Johnson and once again, Edwards. While Kenseth did run away with it at the end, his two tire change on that last pit stop certainly made it interesting as to whether or not Johnson or Edwards would have the speed or time to catch him. We all know what happened at Charlotte days ago, where the lead changed four times in the final five laps, including most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. losing the lead in the final turn. While Kenseth looked to have the fastest car in the 600, the amount of strategies playing out made it difficult to tell who was going to win, which always adds a unique, exciting feature to racing. It has added another element of unpredictability to a race, which is something the sport desperately needs with engines no longer failing at the rate they used to.

While teams appear to have gambled more in recent weeks, does that hurt the integrity of a race? Smith’s win at Darlington was certainly a feel good story, but it would have been better had he straight up passed the leader on the same set of tires as opposed to staying out. A win is a win, no matter how it happens, but isn’t racing supposed to be about the fastest car that goes to victory lane? It’s an endless debate; some would agree that the quickest car is most deserving whereas others would say it’s about who is the smartest team.

What is most concerning is that four tires don’t mean as much anymore. Whether it is Goodyear building a really good tire, the new nose on the current car we have (I don’t even know what to call it anymore), or more races on the smooth surface cookie cutters, passing seems to be much more difficult this year. Teams are catching on to it, which is why we are seeing more risk taking on pit road.

Why else could this be happening? It could be a product of the new rule to the point system this year, where the 11th and 12th spot in the Chase standings are reserved for the two drivers with the most wins inside the top 20 in points. If a win is just about all it takes, considering there are only about 30 cars that run the distance every week, it makes sense to take more chances.

Basically, the last month has been about being in position to win, not necessarily being the car with the most speed. There is some good and evil to it, but what makes it perhaps the most interesting is whether it will continue, especially into the Chase. The next four tracks on the schedule, Kansas, Pocono, Michigan, and Sonoma, have had their share of races determined by getting off cycle on pit stops, so it looks to continue for at least another month. As for the final ten races of the schedule, it would be foolish to think every Chase race will be decided by strategy, but it is reasonable to believe that strategy will be more important than ever in determining this year’s Sprint Cup champion.

Contact Garrett Horton

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Bill B
06/03/2011 07:07 AM

Hmmm, you had it right earlier in the article and then you went off on a tangent. It’s not the new point system it’s the aero problems that make it near impossible to pass. As long as whomever is out front has that big of an advantage, passing will continue to happen on pit road and restarts. This should be NASCARs number one “thing to fix” because the racing suffers.

06/03/2011 11:24 AM

I don’t agree with the statement that; ‘the fastest car should win’
Kyle Busch already showed last week on the street in his lexus that the guy with the fastest car is a big loser.
Ok, low blow. But seriously, racing isn’t only about having the fastest car. It is about being able to handle a fast car and how to get to the finish first. Fast cars help, but handling cars are necessary. Pitting is a part of racing. The guys who figure it out best deserve to win. If it was all about the fastest car winning, then the race would be over after qualifying on Saturday.

As for the problem with not being able to pass. I agree that more passing needs to happen. We’ve heard time and time again & seen it as well that the leader who gets the clean air can run away from the pack and the guys with the dirty air are stuck in the field and can’t get to the front. Hopefully in 2013 with the COT2 they fix that problem. I suspect that the 1.5 mile track races would be more entertaining to watch if drivers were actually able to pass one another.