Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … The Real NASCAR Closer, Johnson Speeds To Sorry And Quick Hits

*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”:http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fruefrontenac.com%2F 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…

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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