The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... The Real NASCAR Closer, Johnson Speeds To Sorry And Quick Hits by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday April 6, 2011

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Did You Notice?… Everyone and their mother referring to Kevin Harvick as “the best closer in NASCAR?”

It’s a broad-based statement, the only stats to back it up his “Hail Mary” late-race comebacks the last two weeks. Those runs were impressive, Harvick passing Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., respectively to win the races despite leading a combined total of seven laps. But has he really been the best late-race bloomer in NASCAR 2011?

The answer will surprise you. The sport’s loop data keeps a statistic marked “closers,” keeping track of how many positions each driver gains in the last 10 percent of each race. Sounds like the category Harvick should be dominating, right?

Let’s find out.

2011 Top 5 Closers – Positions Gained In The Last 10 Percent Of Each Race
Juan Pablo Montoya: +31 Spots Gained, 5.2 Average
Kevin Harvick: +22 Spots Gained, 3.7 Avg.
David Gilliland: +20 Spots Gained, 3.3 Avg.
Carl Edwards: +16 Spots Gained, 2.7 Avg.
Brian Vickers: +16 Spots Gained, 2.7 Avg.

According to the stats sheet, Juan Pablo Montoya should be the one everyone is calling “The Closer,” not Kevin Harvick.

Turns out it’s not even close: Montoya, not Harvick has been quietly tearing it up even better lately down the stretch despite having the edge in the win column (two to zero). And it’s not an isolated incident, either, like the Gilliland anomaly (surprised he’s there? Nineteen of his twenty spots “gained” were in the Daytona 500).

Here’s a breakdown of how Montoya’s fared in the last ten percent of races:
Daytona – 23rd to sixth (+17)
Phoenix – 23rd to 19th (+4)
Las Vegas – 1st to 3rd (-2)
Bristol – 26th to 24th (+2)
Fontana – 14th to 10th (+4)
Martinsville – 10th to 4th (+6)

Of course, the one that has to stick in his craw is Las Vegas, where Montoya didn’t have the speed of either Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart in the closing stages. But considering last season’s disaster, in which Montoya collected more DNFs (eight) than top-5 finishes (six) a man known to lose his patience has to be thrilled after reeducating himself on how to push the car to the limit. It’s all about balancing aggression enough to finish the race, with Montoya collecting a net gain of 31 points to make the difference between him sitting seventh in the standings and tied for 12th.

“I think we make the most out of it,” he said Friday on how he’s raced different in 2011. “We learn lots here [with his 2010 slump] that you can’t really DNF. We had so many DNF’s and so many wrecks and so many things go wrong; but this year, I think we’re racing a lot smarter.”

Just for comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at Harvick’s second-place numbers:
Daytona – 42nd to 42nd (+/- 0)
Phoenix – 4th to 4th (+/- 0)
Las Vegas – 21st to 17th (+4)
Bristol – 16th to 6th (+10)
Fontana – 6th to 1st (+5)
Martinsville – 4th to 1st (+3)

Not too shabby; note the No. 29 car hasn’t lost a single position in any race over the final 10 percent of laps. For the record, he led this category in 2010, picking up a grand total of 71 positions to equal an average of 2.0 per race.

It’s just this year, Montoya’s been that little bit better, no matter what the commentators might tell you on TV.

Did You Notice?… The hubbub over Jimmie Johnson getting busted for a pit road speeding penalty? Before we go into his reaction and subsequent apology, let’s hit the rewind button to Homestead, November 2010. Johnson appears to gain ground on pit road, visually closing the gap on other drivers which causes a reaction in Kevin Harvick’s pit the No. 48 should have been busted for speeding.

Here’s the radio traffic, in case you’ve forgotten:
“TV showed the 48 speeding a stop ago and they didn’t do nothing about it.”
Harvick’s response: “That ain’t right.”

Afterwards, the pull-no-punches driver threw one to reporters:
“I don’t think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach,” Harvick said. “When you read me off of my pit road times of 49.6, 49.4, 50.8 and then 49.6; and there’s only a handful people that get to see them, I won’t ever settle for that.”

“I don’t know how you can be speeding when you’re on the bumper in front of you if the other guy is not speeding. So, that’s about it.”

Two days after getting busted for speeding on pit road, Johnson apologized for criticizing NASCAR over the way that penalty was handled. But in the midst of his apology, there were a number of good points made about what’s become an increasingly complex issue for the sport.

So this much is clear: at least one of Johnson’s colleagues has always believed the No. 48 pushes the limit on pit road, a limit NASCAR felt he had never crossed for nearly a year until Sunday’s penalty. And on Tuesday, in the midst of his talking about the penalty itself we gained some insight into exactly how Johnson tries to beat the system:

“You try to maximize those segments, try to find the zones to where the timing lines fall in a way where you can accelerate and get slowed down entering your pit or on exit if it’s in a way where maybe you come through and trip the line and you stop in your pit box,” he explained. “Then you do a pit stop and you have 14 or 15 seconds on your side to accelerate where you can’t get caught speeding. We look at that stuff just like all the other teams and try to make smart decisions on pit road.”

What does that mean in English? Simple. The way pit road speeding gets calculated is through timing lines, spaced out equally over the entire length of pit road. As the cars travel from segment to segment, timing line to timing line how NASCAR figures out speeding is through a simple Time vs. Distance formula: they calculate your average miles per hour through each segment and see if you’re over the limit. It’s completely different than being stopped by the cops on the highway; there, the radar gun captures you for a split second, at 79 miles an hour in a 65 mph zone even if you’re averaging under 65 mph for your entire time on the highway.

It’s a complex issue, so hopefully that explanation makes sense. But what spurred Johnson’s criticism Sunday was his belief NASCAR had nailed him for something he’d learned years ago: if you accelerate well beyond the speed limit in your timing zone where your pit stall is, based on NASCAR’s formula you’ll never get busted for speeding. Heck, you can go 80, 90, 100 miles an hour and it won’t matter because your car has stood motionless for 15 seconds, getting tires and fuel in between that timing zone so that brings down the average.

According to Johnson, that’s why he was apologetic Tuesday because the real segment he wound up getting busted for, number three, was well before his pit box, a normal segment where entering pit road he needed to post below the average speed of 30 miles an hour. At the time of his Sunday criticism, he felt the zone was the one where he stopped in his pit box, a place he couldn’t get busted but where NASCAR has caught on to the small but subtle way the No. 48 was getting around the system.

But while J.J. backed down in the face of official statistics – his average time in that segment, according to NASCAR was 35.53 mph, well beyond the grace period – he still feels strongly that to settle any controversies, the sport should immediately publish the data they get on pit road to the public.

“They have the information being sent to a computer that they’re reviewing in race control,” he said Tuesday. “It would be very easy to broadcast that signal just like they do for timing and scoring for all the teams to see. At that point, when it’s coming up live time, there’s no argument. In a world of black and white that we live in now, we’re all looking for that transparency.”

That leaves two issues to discuss going forward. One, should the way speeding is calculated get changed so drivers like Johnson don’t find ways to skirt around the system? And two, should the pit road speeds be presented to the public after every stop?

We’ll deal with issue two first, an argument that’s been publicly pushed for years. I completely agree with Johnson that in this instant gratification world of Twitter, Facebook, and DV-R no one wants a penalty explained days, even hours after the fact. Have you ever been watching the Super Bowl, a penalty gets thrown for pass interference and you don’t get to see what caused the flag? When pit road speeding penalties happen, NASCAR fans don’t get that visual connection to what went wrong; they’re just told someone went over the limit and, well, that’s all she wrote. Officials may have done the right thing, simply adhered to the formula + electronics that busted the driver but without public transparency, for all fans know they could have thrown a dart at a dartboard and said, “It’s his turn to get busted.”

For now, the sanctioning body refuses to change their policy, taking the stance a public dispersal of that information during the race could allow other teams to figure out their strategy. Huh? Isn’t part of winning the race part of figuring out the other teams’ strategy… and then beating them on it, fair and square? If crew chiefs are in a mental battle of two tires vs. four tires on every caution flag, I don’t see why entering into a mental battle of how to save the most time on pit road is any different.

Which brings us back to point number one. Some have clamored for a change in the way speeding is calculated on pit road, claiming between the five mph grace period and the way drivers can skirt around certain segments people receive an unfair advantage in and out of the pits. I think that’s a more complex issue than people realize. Sure, you can calculate based on GPS but that’s not foolproof either; one mistake, one split-second miscalculation within that GPS and someone’s busted for being off for going “32 MPH” when they never did; plus, let’s say the other 50 seconds down pit road they never popped above 28. NASCAR verified the difficulties of this switch on SIRIUS yesterday, Robin Pemberton insistent they’d rather have a system that gives you a “grace period” rather than the “highway gun” radar philosophy described above; split-second speed requires no flexibility and puts you at greatest risk for error over the long-term.

There’s also the possibility of technological advances, although NASCAR moves on those at a snail’s pace (See: Injection, Fuel). But while some sort of chip that automatically limits speed on pit road levels the playing field, throwing the seconds you gain or lose completely in the hands of your crew I’m not sure that’s the right solution, either. One of the problems with the Car of Tomorrow is we made our race cars “generic,” taking out the bulk of innovation and creativity out of the hands of crew chiefs and mechanics across America. In a way, there’s an art to these drivers trying to beat the system, just like basketball players figure out a way to skirt around fouls or baseball players need to adjust around individual umpire’s strike zones.

Clearly, it’s a complex situation and one that won’t be resolved anytime soon. But for fans and drivers wondering how the No. 48 makes up time in the pits, a secret was revealed on Tuesday; and even if other drivers criticize that secret, no doubt some haven’t thought of it and all will be trying to play “copycat” over the next few weeks.

Did You Notice?… Some quick hits before taking off: – I understand NASCAR’s need to stand out in April by putting a “special event” on Saturday night. It’s only the first month of baseball season, plus the NCAA Tournament just wrapped up leaving a gap in the national sports consciousness until the NHL & NBA playoffs fire up. But even though Texas has improved in recent years, is that really the track to build your momentum on, one that’ll turn the casual couch potato flipping the channels into a NASCAR believer? Every year under the current TV contract, the worst-rated Sprint Cup event on FOX (rainouts excluded) has been the weekend primetime race run in April, held in Phoenix from 2007-09. To turn the tide, don’t you think the sport would have been better served switching the venue to one that’s more of a “sure bet” for close competition: Talladega, Martinsville, Richmond, even a night race at Bristol? A different time slot means a unique opportunity to lure in new viewership, and the last thing you need is Fontana: Part II for 300 laps where the real racing doesn’t kick up until everyone’s already asleep. And considering the switch hasn’t been heavily advertised, what’s the over/under on fans waking up Sunday morning only to realize the Cup event happened the previous night?

- So Kimi Raikkonen is paying $100,000 per race for a Camping World Truck Series ride? (See Dominic Fugere’s Rue Frontenac story for all the details). Has he not taken a look at NASCAR earnings lately? Let’s say Raikkonen pays $400,000 for four races, hoping to build it into a future stock car opportunity with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Let’s compare to the money earned through four races in 2011, where the Truck Series’ highest-paid driver is Johnny Sauter – collecting a cool $79,570 for his efforts to date.

Can’t do the math in your head? That’s a net loss of $320,430 for Mr. Raikkonen assuming he duplicates Sauter’s money and on-track success (the No. 13 team has a win and three top-10 finishes in four races). And can you imagine if he paid for a full season? The highest earner in 2010 was Truck Series champ Todd Bodine, who earned a shade over $966,000 for his efforts. Raikkonen, if he duplicated that would still take a $1.6 million net loss.

Yeah, I know, the guy’s getting in the best equipment in hopes that money will pay off in the form of a multi-million dollar stock car opportunity. But that’s a heck of a lot of money to put out up front considering the current rigid state of open rides at the sport’s top level. Is rally racing really that bad?

- While we’re disproving commentator theories, can we work on another one: Jeff Gordon as “Big Daddy.” Really, guys? You look at the original “Four-Time,” who’s all of 5’7” somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 pounds and that’s what you see? I shudder to think what nickname they’ve labeled Tony Stewart or Jimmy Spencer behind the scenes…

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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04/06/2011 05:30 AM

Did you notice that Clap, Clap… NASCAR is back!

It’s very difficult to argue this morning that NASCAR is anything but a top-tier sport in the United States. With 6 weeks of exciting racing, increased ratings, compelling story lines and Sunday’s finish that was absolutely spectacular NASCAR has re-cemented itself into pop-culture in this country.

Unfortunately for us diehard fans, there are some media outlets that refuse to acknowledge that. As Nick Bromberg labeled them, the “unsilent minority” continues to bash a now recovering and thriving sport ignoring the excitement and ferocity of red-blooded American motorsport and drinking the kool-aid mixed by your average bumbling McJournalist and his Bowleing partner of an editor. But the saddest part of all, is that this unsilent minority and their “Netscape 1.0 blog” style of a websites think they have significant effect on NASCAR while ironically shunning the folks who disagree with their opinions.

Over the past few weeks, as NASCAR ratings have climbed and races have produced above average finishes, drama, and excitement for the sport. Ratings have climbed, attendance is up, and water cooler (mc)talk has dramatically increased, yet certain websites cater to the “unsilent minority” who continue to beat down a thriving horse? Is is because the racing is really that bad? Or because it’s simply easier to poke holes in an argument than to come up with an original one of your own? But the saddest part is – some websites, “who claim an innocent _bird’s eye view_” practice a form of segregation not seen since the 50’s.

Speaking of segregation – how crazy is it that after an article in which TB himself bashed for firing him banned one of their most popular, well read, and most replied to commenters. Free speech? Inappropriate language? Or jealousy?… I’ll take the latter. I guess you aren’t allowed to champion an unpopular view if it elicits inappropriate responses from others. Foul language by association – what the HECK is that?

A few years ago fs posted an add to “write for the frontstretch’ where they advertised that they were looking for writers who could “make your reader think, dream, laugh, cry, swear, or hunt you down and beat you to a pulp, then you’re just who we are looking for!”

- Sounds an awful lot like soemone we’ve all grown to know and love (or hate!!!). Still let me remind you of a quote by the late – not so great Dale Sr who said: “If they ain’t cheering, they better be booing.”

Well, FS staff readers and fans, here’s some “Mcirony” for you. Over the past 4 weeks, NASCAR ratings are UP, excitement is UP, (Matt M’s made-up stat of quality passes for the lead) are UP (notice how he doesn’t keep track of them anymore because his argument held no water). The only thing down are the comments on this website… I wonder what has changed????

Sharon Jones
04/06/2011 08:20 AM

I don’t know where you read your definition of “closer”. I thought closer was the one who closed the deal. I have only seen Montoya close one deal and I have disliked him ever since.

Managing Editor
04/06/2011 11:04 AM

Dear RG2,

Funny … for the most popular commenter on this site, you sure had a lot of fans emailing us for month publicly and privately begging for us to ban you based on personal attacks and inappropriate language towards other people in this forum.

My only regret is that we didn’t take care of it sooner. But we’ll certainly take care of it immediately going forward…

04/06/2011 11:22 AM

Managing Editor: THANK YOU !

04/06/2011 11:55 AM

One can make numbers tell any story one wants. One question to ask is how many ‘wins’ in JPM pocket this year.

04/06/2011 01:54 PM

Why is it that probably the most complicated cars in the world, F1, can have a pit limiter switch and Nascar cannot? They are switching to fuel inj. and a maclaren F1 ecu, why not incorporate the pit speed limiter with it?

04/06/2011 02:56 PM

I been wondering what happened to that commenter with a million screen names. Now I know. Although it looks like they figured out a way around being blocked.

Carl D.
04/06/2011 04:27 PM

Coming from mid-pack to somewhere just behind the winner won’t get you wins, but it can get you in the top 10 and into the chase. Personally, I subscribe to age-old adage that second place is the first loser, but under Nascar’s point system, that may not be the case. I’m not implying that Montoya is points racing; I feel sure if he could have powered his way to a win he would have. Also, if Montoya keeps running like he has been, the wins will come. What I am saying is that JPM has finally realized that he doesn’t have to tear a car up pushing for a win when a top 5 will get you into the chase.

Managing Editor… Thanks for ridding the Frontstretch of that annoying trouble-maker. I for one had truly had enough.

04/06/2011 04:49 PM

Thank you to the editors for getting rid of Randy/RG2/Susan/etc. Now, we will just have to wait and see how many other names he creates.

04/06/2011 05:21 PM

ding dong the witch (Randy and all of his multiple personas) are — well, hopefully gone! thank you!!

Half the time the cars can’t get a decent read on the pit road speed so they have to use a calculation off their tach to see if they are where they need to be.

Voldemort and Weasley finally screwed up and little and got busted. I was pretty happy. Any time the 5X 10 race trophy winner is disappointed is good in my mind. I had read Spencer’s article about the way the Johnson comports himself as a “champion” and I have to agree that with most of his comments. Johnson is NOT a fine example at all — he and chad are simply the best at cheating the system. They’ve made it work but I’m not impressed.

Mike S.
04/06/2011 05:50 PM

Re: JPM as a better “closer” than Harvick. When you are coming from further back in the field, there are more spots to be picked up, so the “total spots gained” stat is nonsense. JPM’s average position to start the final 10% of the race is 16.1, so he has a better chance of picking up spots. Harvick’s average position to start the final 10% of the race (disregarding Daytona because of the blown engine not giving him a chance to finish the race) is 10.2. Fewer spots to make up, so fewer to gain.

04/06/2011 05:50 PM

This used to be a good place to read until the bat shit crazies from the Daly Planet invaded.

Mike S.
04/06/2011 05:57 PM

Re: JPM as a better “closer” than Harvick. When you are coming from further back in the field, there are more spots to be picked up, so the “total spots gained” stat is nonsense. JPM’s average position to start the final 10% of the race is 16.1, so he has a better chance of picking up spots. Harvick’s average position to start the final 10% of the race (disregarding Daytona because of the blown engine not giving him a chance to finish the race) is 10.2. Fewer spots to make up, so fewer to gain. Let’s make the “closer” stat more viable by seeing who gained the bigger percentage of available spots. For this, we’ll eliminate one of JPM’s races as well (Vegas, because he was first, so therefore could not gain any spots). In the other 5 races, JPM could have picked up a possible 96 spots and actually picked up 33 of them (34.4%). Harvick had 51 possible spots to pick up, and picked up 22 of them (43.1%). By that criteria, Harvick is the better “closer”.

Mike S.
04/06/2011 06:01 PM

Sorry about the double post. I hit the “submit” button too early.

04/06/2011 06:11 PM

I think term “the best closer” goes beyond the 2011 season.

2001 Atlanta race, Harvick/Gordon

2007 Daytona 500, Harvick/Martin

2010 Talladega

Thanks for banning RG.

04/06/2011 06:16 PM

Haha… funny… you would think its easier to ban someone from an online forum. Maybe FS doesnt just employ idiotic writers, their IT staff must be strugging as well.

Missed all you guys too.

04/06/2011 07:35 PM

Once again we are on the same side of an issue.

I too thought the reason they raced was to win, not just gain positions. But by Thomas (pat myself on the Back)Bowles the object is to quailify poorly and gain 20-30 spots, instead of quailifing well and winning.

All the years of not knowing the REAL OBJECT of racing I’ve wasted. Thanks Thomas for cleaning up MY MISUNDERSTANDING.

04/07/2011 01:16 AM

this guy that wrote this ad is off on his statshe is harvicks start and finish stats from daytona to martinsville
Daytona – 7th to 42nd (- 35)
Phoenix – 17th to 4th (+13)
Las Vegas – 26th to 17th (+9)
Bristol – 15th to 6th (+9)
Fontana – 24th to 1st (+23)
Martinsville – 9th to 1st (+8)
so i know harvicks stats because i watch harvick every week so if those stats are wrong then i bet you any money that the rest of thing ding dongs ad is wrong do your home work before you hit enter yeah you thinking right know that that makes harvick position gain smaller but at least there right and there still better than montoyas because harvick has 2 wins he has none and only one in his hole nascar career so kick me of the site to band me from ever posting because i am never reading any thing from writen from this guy because the is no reason to read anything from a fool thanks for reading this long post just hop it help you look at the stats a realize this guy dosnt know any thing at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

04/07/2011 01:46 AM

Daytona – 13th to 6th (+7)
Phoenix – 22nd to 19th (+3)
Las Vegas – 23rd to 3rd (+20)
Bristol – 36th to 24th (+12)
Fontana – 1st to 10th (-9)
Martinsville – 27th to 4th (+23)
here are montoyas i think that the nascar stats and the bowles stats are way off on harvicks and montoyas dont know what else he might be wrong on mabie montoya isnt the best “closer” in the business mabie it is regan smith no front row joe maybie aj dinger i dont know but i dont think i would ask this guy he dost even know what track jaun got the pole it wasent vages it was auto club thanks for the time and another thing the timing line are not spaced evenly there all in diferent ereas they showed the timing line sheet on the race hub and the was a section that was only i thing 2 car lenth the rest of them were like 15 they are not evenly spaced what else did you just guess on it this hole ad some reporter you are lets take shots in the dark to get the ad in a make a dollar you probolly get all your info from daffy duck and the rest of the loony toons your despicable
Thomas Bowles

04/07/2011 01:54 AM

the best closer must be kyle busch because he has the best average finish than anybody and i dont like the twerp at all but thats the facts and thats why hes leading the pointsthat all finally i know i have posted a lot but i am going to work on my race car and laugh at tom daffy bowles

04/08/2011 10:51 AM

Wasn’t safety the primary reason for a speed limit on pit road? I’m not sure allowing a car to go 100mph on pit road because it keeps him under his “average” speed is very safe in my book.

If the speed limit is 35, at no time should a car go faster than that once on pit road. That’s how it should be enforced. That way nobody has to worry about studying timing lines etc. Put a light on the dash where if they approach that speed it goes on. Nothing more needs to be done. (I think the light is already being used)

Last year at Homestead showed how badly the system is flawed currently. A bunch of cars come down pit road nose to tail under caution and the 2nd person in line gets busted for speeding but nobody else does. Makes no sense and Nascar has never explained that penalty. It also essentially handed Johnson the title last year as well.

Do you guys see the pattern with these foreign drivers that try to come over here and race. They get hyped up to no end by the media and then they struggle. Happens to all of them. The only one to have any real success is JPM, but he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in Cup either. When will you guys learn. If I’m wrong I will eat crow, but I don’t see this being any different.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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