The Frontstretch: Full Throttle: Sometimes, It Doesn't Pay To Be Fast by Mike Neff -- Wednesday April 13, 2011

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Full Throttle: Sometimes, It Doesn't Pay To Be Fast

Mike Neff · Wednesday April 13, 2011


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Every weekend, the talking heads on the television broadcasts remind us that seconds lost in the pits equal positions on the track. We’re constantly shown the pit lane times, driver time, crew time, jack man time, gas man time and segment times. It all adds up to intense pressure on pit crews to be as fast as possible or make things more difficult on the driver. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen several times this year, the cost of being fast is often carelessness which, in the long run, takes far more time to rebound from than fractions of a second lost during pit stops.

During last week’s race in Texas, Kyle Busch was running near the front of the pack and looked like he’d have a shot at the win until he had a vibration caused by a loose lug nut. By the time he got back to pit lane and the tire was replaced, the lug studs were damaged from the vibrating wheel and the team was never able to get the tire fully tightened the rest of the race. Another stop under green to fix the wheel ultimately resulted in a 16th-place finish, one lap down.

Every week, precious tenths of a second on pit road determine track position. But with the rash of penalties for pushing too hard, is that extra spot or two teams gain really worth it with how they straddle the line?

Later, Tony Stewart had a pit road speeding violation when he was coming in for what would have been his final stop, one that should have set him up to win the race on fuel mileage. But the veteran sped entering the pits and had to make a drive through because of the violation, putting him behind the eight-ball if he had any hope of Victory Lane. Those hopes were dashed when he ran out of fuel after the white flag, finishing as the last car on the lead lap in 12th thanks to the mad dash to catch up after his penalty.

The week before, at Martinsville, Jamie McMurray was having a solid run after qualifying on the pole. During a pit stop on one of the last caution flags of the race, McMurray’s front tire changer left a lug nut off on the left front tire. The resulting penalty forced McMurray to head back to pit lane and have the nut reattached, leaving him to start at the tail end of the lead lap cars. McMurray managed to make it back to the seventh position but if it weren’t for the pit road mistake, he likely would have finished in the top 5.

Racing is all about teamwork, even though there is only one person driving the car. Teams make multiple pit stops every race and the actions surrounding those are choreographed from the time the driver begins to slow down to exit the track until they accelerate at the end of the pit road to get back into the action. While it is crucial for teams to try for every possible advantage on the pit lane, pushing it too hard can frequently have far greater negative implications than being slightly more conservative and making sure that everything is completed properly.

Chad Knaus and the No. 48 pit crew have been the champions in the series for the last five years running. Up until last year, they were the epitome of consistency and efficiency. Unfortunately, their cars were down on speed last year which meant the pit crew was pushing things even harder to make up time on pit road. The end result was mistakes were being made more frequently and the organization made the move to switch the pit crew with Jeff Gordon’s. In the end, that worked out for the fifth straight title but highlighted a problem that the team hadn’t previously worried about.

Prior to last year, Knaus was always preaching the same mantra for pit stops. Be quick but don’t rush, make sure that everything is completed before the car leaves the pits. It was extremely rare for Johnson to ever have loose wheels or missing lugs because Knaus knew that, even if they lost a spot on pit lane by being thorough, they could make it up. Last year, lack of speed in the cars erased that from being a certainty and the crew started pushing which led to the mistakes.

The pit crews at the Cup level are the best in the business and they can do their jobs far faster than anyone else in racing. The seconds made up on pit road can certainly translate into better finishes but pushing too hard and making mistakes can have far greater negative consequences. Teams will always push the limits and trying to get cars out of the pits in 12 seconds or less is the current goal of every crew on pit road. The key is focusing and being quick without rushing so that all of the elements of the pit stop are completed successfully and thoroughly.

So much focus these days are on the perils of losing track position. But considering the consequences, isn’t it better to lose half of a second and make sure everything is right than to think everything is right and lose large chunks of minutes by having to come back in and fix what wasn’t done right in the name of speed?

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04/13/2011 12:17 PM

Very well put. A 16 second pit stop is alot better than a pass through penalty under green flag conditions or tail of the longest line.

Tony had the right strategy going and it probably would have paid off without the errors too.

Kevin in NY
04/13/2011 01:31 PM

Especially in this era where aero issues make passing difficult and track position paramount, I’m not sure that taking that extra half-second is the right pit strategy. Judging by what we see every week, it seems the most competitive teams have compared the risks of making a mistake with the rewards of pushing pit times faster and faster, and come to conclusion that a pass-through penalty or a mechanical issue every few races is well-worth the chance to run upfront. Your logic seems sound, but I think that if there were an advantage to be gained, we would have seen it already. More likely, drivers will perfect pushing pit speed ala JJ, pit crews will continue to improve, and the competition will become ever more brutal.


Contact Mike Neff

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