The old adage is simple but true—- the fastest car doesn’t always win the race.
The reasons for why that happens, of course, can change as often as the weather: an engine could blow, a tire could get cut down, or an overeager driver could take a winning car and push it too hard into the outside wall, among other things. Recently, though, it seems that whenever the fastest car loses the race, there’s just one place and one place only to blame"¦
For better or for worse, the art of the pit stop has become one of the most important factors nowadays in whether a race is won or lost. It didn’t used to be that way, of course"¦twenty years ago, there were no pit road speed restrictions, and with only a handful of cars finishing each race on the lead lap, there wasn’t really such a thing as pit strategy: two tires, four tires, or no tires, whoever the best car was on any given Sunday could fight his way to the front no matter what track position he had. It’s pretty easy to overcome a pit strategy snafu when you’ve only got four drivers and clear race track in front of you.
Of course, that’s not the way things are today; with 20 to 30 cars on the lead lap and passing at a premium, track position won or lost through the art of pitting is more important than ever before. Phoenix served as a prime example; consider the following pit road blunders that occurred just in one event:
- Kyle Busch, the early leader, was penalized for exceeding the speed limit entering pit road and put at the end of the longest line for the restart. He never recovered, getting himself in a wreck with Casey Mears and knocking his car out of contention.
- Carl Edwards found himself running strong before contact with Kyle Petty on pit road forced a series of pit stops during an early caution to fix left front fender damage. Luckily for Edwards, he had 250 laps to recover, eventually finishing 4th.
- Mark Martin led 111 laps during the early and middle portions of the race, becoming the favorite to win before his left front tire changer forgot to tighten all the lugnuts on his car during a yellow flag pit stop. Martin had to come back down pit road to have the lugnuts fixed; falling to 18th with 100 laps to go, he never could work his way back to the lead.
While any type of incident concerning pit road can be frustrating, Martin’s problems appeared to affect his emotions more than anyone else, simply because the actions of his crew are completely out of his control. That inability to control one’s own destiny, perhaps, is probably the most frustrating thing for the driver in this new world of pit road where an extra three seconds can cost you 20 spots. Driving talent alone can’t win races anymore; not only is superior equipment needed, not only does your car have to have the aerodynamics, but you need to get in and out of the pits cleanly, with your crew servicing you in 15 seconds for four tires and fuel"¦every single time. More than ever, NASCAR is becoming a team sport.
There’s no room for error"¦and no room for mistakes, especially if you’re the leader. Otherwise, you’ll be next in line on the list of "fastest car not to win the race."
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