Matt Kenseth had the car to beat for the All-Star race this weekend; after winning segments one and three, he looked to be in strong shape to come through unscathed during the last 20 laps. With just one more segment to go, all he had to do to be in position to take the checkers up front was make a flawless run down pit road.
Unfortunately, that’s where it all collapsed.
Kenseth’s trip down pit lane came attached with a pit road speeding violation that relegated him to the back of the pack and aero push hell. Of course, with such a short segment left to the finish the No. 17 car was never able to make it back to the front; despite a valiant effort, Kenseth finished 7th, the latest in a long line of drivers who have seen their chances for the win slip away in the face of getting caught speeding on pit road.
Now, although you may be rolling your eyes at more NASCAR penalties coming into play, trying to figure out whether cars are speeding on pit road is harder than you might think. Since the cars don’t have speedometers or digital speed displays, the drivers have to guess at how fast they are running on pit road based on their tachometers. It is amazing that the highest level of NASCAR competition cannot come up with a way for drivers to more accurately know their pit road speed and avoid receiving the penalties that can ruin an entire week's worth of effort.
Whenever NASCAR announces the pit road speed for a given event, the best the teams can currently do is to calculate what RPM their driver must maintain in order to be within the established limits. During the pace laps before the race, the pace car takes the field around the track at pit road speed so that drivers can confirm their tachometer reading and, theoretically, know what the necessary RPMs are to maintain that speed. Unfortunately, with 22 cars behind the pace car (the field is split into two groups for the pit road laps) it is very difficult for the cars at the back of a given group to truly gauge what speed the pace car is maintaining. It would seem as though there would be several options that would make this a much easier process, without much effort on NASCAR or the team's parts.
The first solution would be easy – put speedometers in the cars. This would seem like a very simple fix that would eliminate this problem all together and remove the guesswork from what speed certain RPMs translate into. However, this question has actually been posed to NASCAR in the past, fetching an answer that seems to negate any chance of this ever happening – NASCAR doesn't want to get into the process of calibrating speedometers. To me, that seems silly. Due to the fact that maintaining the pit road speed is still the driver's responsibility, it would seem to me that a team could install one if they wanted to and simply have it be another tool that the driver could use to reduce the possibility of speeding on pit road. It would also seem that, with the number of very bright individuals in the garage that work on these cars, keeping a speedometer calibrated would really not be that difficult of a proposition.
The other solution that would seem extremely simple to implement would be to put the speed signs that we have all seen on the side of the road along the outside of pit road. If you’ve driven on any major highway, you know what I’m talking about; it’s the electronic signs that show you how fast you are going and blink at you if you are going too fast. NASCAR could put those along the outside of pit road where each timing loop crosses pit lane, immediately telling the drivers how quickly they are traveling. While it is not an exact science, and speeding is calculated by the amount of time it takes a driver to travel from one loop to the next, it would at least let them know how quickly they are traveling at the point in time they cross each loop.
The last option would be to put a display on the dash of each car that would show the driver what speed they are running down the pit lane based on what speed NASCAR is seeing on their timing and scoring system. Obviously, NASCAR is receiving data from the timing loops on pit road, and it would seem as though they could broadcast that back to the cars and allow the drivers to know what speed they are traveling. Before the race, they could turn on the system and allow the cars to take their first pace lap down the pit lane and observe what NASCAR sees as their car's speed; they could then know what RPMs are necessary to maintain pit road speed and know exactly what NASCAR is seeing to justify any penalties they would have later in the race.
As far as I’m concerned, the fact that teams still have to guess what their exact RPMs are to maintain pit road speed when we’re living in 2007 is simply ridiculous. These teams are spending millions of dollars a year to race in this series, and misgauging their pit road speed can not only result in failure to win a given race, it can cause them to miss the Chase and ultimately lose out on millions of dollars in prize money. In this day and age, there has to be a better way to tell the drivers how fast they can drive on pit road…hopefully, one of these solutions will become the long-term answer.
Looking for how your favorite driver has performed during the first third of the season? Be sure to come back tomorrow and check out Matt McLaughlin’s Driver Report Cards for Nextel Cup, the first of a four-part series that can be seen only on Frontstretch.com.
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