One of the best things about racing is that there is so much that goes on during the 400 or 500 miles on the track. It’s not simply about going around faster than the next guy. The layers of a NASCAR race are many and varied, and the more you look for during an event, the more complete picture you will see unfolding. Whether it’s tires, talk or trouble, there’s a lot to keep track of between the flags.
So far this season, with a couple of exceptions, tires and fuel have been two different aspects for teams to consider over the course of a race. With tires that wear out, often before the fuel cell runs dry, pit strategy is in play in a way that’s been missing from the competition over the last few years, and teams have been able to use it to change the game. Jimmie Johnson and his team did just that in Atlanta, short pitting to give Johnson what appeared to be an insurmountable advantage late in the game. A caution changed things to a degree (Johnson still won the race), adding another facet to the game. As the Chase cutoff gets closer, will teams play it safe, or does the new package mean they will take chances we haven’t seen with the previous rules package?
- The race within the race
For a fairly significant group of teams, winning the race just isn’t a realistic expectation, but finishing well among their peers is very important. In 2015, it was the No. 47 of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 13 of Casey Mears at the top of the small-team ladder.
This season, that small-team field has grown stronger almost across the board. While the Nos. 47 and 21 are making a splash running with the bigger teams some weeks, several other small teams have made noticeable gains, most notably Front Row Motorsports (in particular, the No. 38 with Landon Cassill) and BK Racing (Matt DiBenedetto has made strides for the organization). No, they’re not running for a win, but they will be racing just as hard in the pack as if they were after the lead, and occasionally, one of them will crash the party with the big boys up front. When things are strung out up front, though, take a look at these guys (hard to do if you’re
watching on TV, I know), because they will be providing some real action.
- Wait, he said what?
At the track or at home, team radios are now readily available to race fans, and listening in on your favorites (and not-so-favorites) provides insight on strategy and often a little bonus entertainment. Often, you can tell from the tone how the team feels about their race. If you listen online, it’ll be delayed a bit, because someone somewhere decided that scanner chatter needed to be family-friendly, but you’ll still get the gist of who’s happy, who’s not, and who’s got revenge on his mind.
It’s also enlightening to listen to the top teams and the smaller ones, which gives some real insight into the struggles the smaller teams face every week.
- Trouble brewing?
If you are listening to team radios or the TV broadcast, it’s worth noting when a driver has an issue. Whether it’s repeated tire problems (which hints at an overaggressive setup), a sudden or persistent vibration, or any of a vast number of things that can crop up during a race, it’s usually worth keeping tabs on.
Something else to pay close attention to are clusters of problems within one team—often if one or two drivers out of the same stable have a big problem, their teammates need to be on the lookout for the same issue, and that may play into their overall race strategy. Sometimes trouble strikes like a bolt from the blue, but sometimes it’s a continuing problem that has been coming to a head.
- Big Brother
Finally, NASCAR is dropping the hammer on teams for pit violations as they have a system for policing stops. That’s a good thing for all involved, but penalties change the game for teams. A strong team trying to come back after a violation will make for some excitement in the pack, and one call back to the pits for breaking the rules can change the entire complexion of the race, sometimes for more than the one team. Even with video, NASCAR can get it wrong, as they admitted was the case on the final restart in the Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas. Penalties are well and good, but they definitely add another dimension to the race.