Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday June 11, 2012
It’s a common occurrence to have a few pit road speeding penalties over the course of a NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Last weekend, at the Monster Mile there were two over the course of 400 laps.
But this Sunday, Pocono added the wrong kind of “double trouble” to that number. The pit road police were out in full force, growing to a whopping 22 penalties over the course of just 160 circuits as everyone from five-time champ Jimmie Johnson to one-race fill-in David Reutimann got busted. The record number of infractions, 18 of which occurred in the race’s first half had the radios buzzing with confusion and concern.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Kevin Harvick at one point, summing up the feelings of this 43-car field. “We’re just purely guessing right now.”
The controversy surrounded section 10, the last set of timing lines before pit exit which was newly created following Pocono’s remodeling. All but two of the penalties doled out were for accelerating too quickly in that section, causing some to believe NASCAR had pulled a fast one on the teams. But that wasn’t the case. An expansion of the number of scoring loops, from nine to ten this offseason came complete with a detailed diagram for all crew chiefs involved, according to multiple sources I spoke with. Not only were all mechanics aware, they had ample opportunity over the course of five days to plot exact entry and exit points for their drivers during testing.
“The crew chiefs go out there and they walk pit road and they can see where the lines are laid in the track,” Tony Stewart explained to me after finishing third (and speeding penalty free) in Sunday’s event. “So you know exactly where they are per pit box, basically. It’s not a secretive deal where you can’t figure out where they’re at. I mean, the crew chiefs are allowed to figure that out and go down there and document where they’re at. Then we’re made aware of it as drivers.
“But it’s still the same pit road speed all the way from the beginning to the end. You don’t really think about [any changes] from year to year, you just worry about whatever the pit road speed is and make sure you get it on your tach correctly.”
It seems like a cut and dry method, where one bad press on the accelerator pedal jumps up your speed and has the cops on your trail in a heartbeat. But many drivers complained of having the tachometer pinned on the same number, from the beginning to end of pit road and still getting penalized – even when they dialed it back another couple hundred RPM under their “reading.” For some, that peculiarity, combined with extensive preparation had them convinced the problem lied solely with NASCAR or the track itself.
“I know both times I got busted, I was under the limit with my tools that I have available,” claimed Brad Keselowski, one of several multiple offenders. “I was consistent down pit road, so if I was speeding in that sector, I would have been speeding in the others but it didn’t show that.”
“Normally, when we hit the line we go,” Jimmie Johnson added, referring to pit exit. “I did that the first time, [and] we got nailed. The second time, I waited until the tail [of my car] crossed the yellow line and still got pinned. All we can come up with is that the yellow line versus the timing loop… that orientation is different here.”
Indeed, some teams were adamant the pit road timing line was just painted wrong; Mark Martin’s crew speculated it may have been off by as much as ten feet. But both NASCAR and Pocono Raceway think differently, placing the blame on an inexplicable number of driver mistakes.
“Maybe (teams were) going off last year’s notes and short-cutting what you do,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, public comments recorded by Jeff Gluck of SB Nation and others. “I don’t know. [But] there’s nothing wrong with the loops. There’s a time to pass over them, [it] calculates the speed and that’s the end of it. Pretty simple.”
That explanation won’t be enough for several teams. At least one, Clint Bowyer and his No. 15 Toyota crew claimed after the race they were going to take up the matter further in private meetings this week.
“I don’t know that they have that section — sector 10 — if they have the footage off [it] or something like that,” Bowyer explained. “They say we’re 60.45 (miles per hour) and I’ll bring up the data and make sure. Now that we have data, we can prove to them what we are running now.”
The Chase contender, though, recovered to finish sixth as part of a long list of drivers who left this track thinking “it could have been worse.” At 2.5 miles, with speeds producing lap times of 50+ seconds most teams stayed on the lead lap, giving them an opportunity to regain spots through fuel strategy and track position. Johnson, despite his two problems actually could have still won the race if not for a few hiccups on the final restart.
Just don’t expect every driver to feel sorry for their rivals – or buy that computers posed a problem. Runner-up finisher Mark Martin provided a different view, based on his 30 years on the circuit and one that could be a learning experience for those pushing the envelope.
“I hate to tell the rest of the paddock,” he said, “But I don’t feel that I can overcome a penalty, so I’m willing to stay slightly below the line comfort zone. For me, a half a second is a lot easier to make up than 30 seconds. I did not have a problem. I’ve got to look my guys in the eyes and tell them that I blew it if I get caught for speeding on pit road.”
Whether it’s truly driver error or disastrous technology will be a matter of public debate for weeks. But there’s no question far too many drivers than should be after any given race will be issuing major apologies in post-race meetings this week.
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