Strategy is Key in 2011

NASCAR teams adapt to pit road rule changes

NASCAR teams adapt to pit road rule changes

by Mike Neff

There have always been races decided by strategy over speed in NASCAR, but pit calls in 2011 may play a bigger factor in race results than ever before. NASCAR has changed some rules for the upcoming racing season that will make the crew chiefs’ decisions more difficult and more critical than at any time in the past.

E15 fuel and the resulting change in fueling rigs, the elimination of the catch can man and stricter limits on tires during the race will have an impact on what crew chiefs decide during pit stops — and ultimately who wins many of the races this season.

NASCAR changed the fueling rules in the Camping World Truck Series last year, going to a self-venting dump can. With the advent of E15 fuel (an ethanol blend) in all of the national touring series, it became necessary to implement the can in all three touring series to minimize the potential for moisture entering the fuel system. With the self-venting can, the teams no longer need a catch can man over the wall, which has not only put several men out of a job, but thrown a curveball to crew chiefs up and down pit road.

In the past, the catch can man made all of the chassis adjustments during pit stops while holding the catch can in place. Whether making a wedge or track bar adjustment, the crewman would engage the can and then use a long-handled ratchet to alter the chassis settings that were accessible through the rear window. With the catch can now out of the equation, the person making the alterations will differ depending on the team. About half of the crew chiefs surveyed during the recent NASCAR Media Tour felt that the rear tire carrier would make the adjustments no matter what the call. However, the other half had a far different view of the new choreography of a pit stop.

The various scenarios that arise during a stop will cause different people to have different responsibilities when the car makes its way to pit road. If a team is only changing two tires, then the tire carrier should have plenty of time to make chassis changes. However, during a four-tire stop the tire carrier needs to quickly get back to the left side of the car, thus slowing the stop if a chassis adjustment is needed. If the car doesn’t need a full fuel load, the fuel man may be responsible for dumping one can and then making chassis changes.

Some teams are even experimenting with utilizing two men who will act as fuel men and tire carriers. In this instance, the right side tire carrier will come back and grab the second can of gas while the first will dump his can, make the changes, then grab the left-rear tire.

As you can see, the scenarios can build up quickly, and some crew chiefs are exploring every possible aspect to minimize the amount of time spent in the pits. The chiefs at Stewart-Haas Racing are even considering having their crew members wear wrist bands like NFL quarterbacks with different numbered “plays,” depending on what the situation calls for, with each member having different duties for different scenarios.

One other aspect of the new dump can that will cause some serious heartburn for crew chiefs is the fact that the flow of fuel out of the can is slower than it was under the old system. New cans take approximately 14 seconds to dump a full fuel load into a car. With teams routinely clicking off sub-13 second pit stops, crew chiefs must decide whether they want to have a full fuel load or better track position. If a team waits for the full load, other teams will beat them off pit road by pulling their fuel can as soon as the rear tire changer is finished.

The teams will be forced to spend even more time studying individual race history, trying to determine the possibility of runs going green for a full fuel load or if caution flags will interrupt the race in the waning laps, allowing for an extra stop. Whatever the trends, there will always be situations where the race doesn’t go according to Hoyle. The call to fill or not to fill is going to factor numerous times throughout the season.

NASCAR is also limiting the number of tires teams are allowed to use during practice and the race. In the past, there was a soft limit, but teams were allowed to “borrow” tires from other teams that dropped out of a race, so theoretically they had more tires than they could possibly use.

With the new rule, there will be different amounts of tires depending on the track and the length of the race, but every team will be limited to what they’re allotted and will not simply be able to change tires during each stop — a no-brainer in the past. In addition, teams will be limited on the number of tires they can use for practice sessions, which will put an emphasis on time management because practice times are now used to determine qualifying order. Timing practice schedules so that they have a fresh set of tires to bolt on when the conditions are optimal to lay down a fast lap will be the order of the day. The limit on tires will most likely have an impact on the fueling strategy, as well, because teams that don’t take tires will be limited by the time it takes to dump fuel and may only take one can to limit time spent on pit lane.

The crew chief has been a critical link in the racing chain for years, but the pressure to make the right calls is going to be greater than ever in 2011. Tony Gibson, crew chief of the No. 39 team, was asked whether he believes that calls from the pit box could ultimately decide who wins the championship in 2011.

“Absolutely,” was his quick and sure-fire response.

Cup racing has always been a copycat sport, and this season — especially over the first month — will witness more pit road procedural theft than at any time in the past. If Gibson is correct, how each team handles the new rules will not only determine how individual races unfold, but how a championship is won.

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff says strategy on pit road will be at a premium this season.</p>

Mike Neff

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