Author’s Note: Welcome to Monday Morning Pit Box. Here’s where we break down all the critical calls that shaped the outcome of a race, looking at life from a crew chief’s perspective.
This past weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series headed to Kansas Speedway for the second race in the opening round of this year’s playoffs. It was a weekend filled with pomp and circumstance, where the sport stood up and saluted the lives of those lost in the 9/11 attacks back in 2001.
Earlier this season, Kurt Busch scored his first win with 23XI Racing at the mile-and-a-half facility. This time around, it was Bubba Wallace who played playoff spoiler, ironically also running the No. 45 following a decision that’s designed to help keep the car number for this organization inside the owner’s playoffs.
But even before the spoiler win, there were some crucial pit road calls that made the difference for several drivers. Which crew chiefs gave an edge to their team before heading to Bristol Motor Speedway to trim the playoff field to 12?
1. Lap 84 – Ryan Blaney pits to fix a loose wheel
Stage one had just come to a close, and most of the field was on pit road for four tires and a fuel tank top off. The problem for Ryan Blaney was that, while he had a great stop, all four wheels weren’t secured on the car. Thankfully for Blaney, crew chief Jonathan Hassler caught the issue before it became a major problem and called his driver back to pit road to fix it.
Had the wheel come completely off the car, it would have resulted in a mandatory four-race suspension for both the crew chief and two team members, usually the tire changer and tire carrier of the lost wheels. Instead, crisis was averted for the No. 12 team and Blaney recovered to finish ninth, adding in a second-place result in stage one.
“I was proud of the progress we made. I had to come down pit road there after the first stage and had to kind of reset in the back,” Blaney explained after the race. “From there, we just weren’t quite good enough to get back up into the top five. I was chasing it and adjusting the car after that. Overall, not a bad day. It was a good points day and we are looking pretty decent going into Bristol. We will have to just go there and have a good day.”
Blaney currently sits fifth in the championship standings with a relatively comfortable 36-point advantage over Kyle Busch, who’s currently the first driver on the outside looking in. Could you imagine where he’d be if that wheel would have come off the car?
2. Lap 139 – Bubba Wallace opting to use his qualifying tires
Fast forward to lap 139 when the field was under its eighth yellow for Kyle Busch spinning. Many of the leaders came down pit road for fresh rubber, although it was a variety of two- and four-tire calls. But instead of brand new Goodyears, Bubba Wallace’s crew chief Bootie Barker made a call to bolt on a set of one-lap scuffs from qualifying, a call that’s typically reserved for midpack teams rather than one that’s been running inside the top 10 for most of the day.
Wallace ultimately finished fourth in stage two, allowing him to keep valuable track position and ultimately setting him up for the 96-lap, green flag finish that followed the ninth and final caution at the end of stage two less than 25 laps later.
Continuing to show the speed the No. 45 Toyota had produced all day long, Wallace went on to lead 58 of the final 68 laps following a power move to the top spot on lap 200. During a round of green flag pit stops, he relinquished that lead for 10 circuits before cycling to the front once again when the remainder of the field made their stops. Wallace went on to score his second career victory, giving 23XI Racing a sweep of the Kansas races after teammate Kurt Busch won at the track in May.
“Man, just so proud of this team, so proud of the effort that they put in each and every week,” an excited Wallace said after the race. “Just thankful for the opportunity, right? Took this jump from an idea two years ago from a text from Denny (Hamlin) before it all even happened. He was ready to get the deal done. Appreciate him. Appreciate MJ, Curtis, Gene. Everybody on that side of things, everybody at 23XI. Men and women there, they work their tails off. Just so proud.
“Pit crew was awesome today. We had one loose wheel. Just thankful. Thanks for the opportunity, and thankful to shut the hell up for a lot of people.”
3. Lap 221 – Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Ty Dillon elect to stay out during green flag stops
Under 50 laps remained in the Kansas race and it was crunch time for many teams. The majority of the field made a trip down pit road under green flag conditions for what turned out to be their final pit stops. But crew chiefs Travis Mack, Paul Wolfe and Jerame Donley called their shots.
Hoping for a caution that would allow them to gain track position on the rest of the field, this trio kept drivers Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano and Ty Dillon on track longer than the rest of the field. At the time, the call made sense, given that the first two stages were slowed by six yellows for on-track incidents.
Instead, stage three ran cleanly and all three drivers were forced to bring their cars down pit road for service within three laps of each other. Their strategies mostly busted. Suarez was the driver who came out on top for that call with a 10th-place finish. Logano and Dillon ended up 17th and 20th, respectively.
It’s certainly not unusual for crew chiefs to opt for alternate pit road strategies when their cars just don’t have the speed to compete for the lead, and we’ve seen those calls go both ways. While it didn’t end up translating into substantially better finishes for these three drivers, I’d bet it created some tense moments for the rest of the field.
Next weekend, Cup drivers bring the Round of 16 to a close with a visit to Bristol Motor Speedway. The race will bring an added challenge as it will be the teams’ first on the asphalt surface after running on dirt at The Last Great Colosseum earlier this season. You can bet with the beating and banging of short track racing, plenty of crew chiefs will have tricks up their sleeves in hopes of putting their drivers through to the Round of 12 or in a position to play spoiler for the third week in a row.