NASCAR Closes Fueling Loophole

NASCAR issued a technical bulletin to teams this week with some new language regarding where fuel filler cans could be filled at the track. The new rule basically states that fuel cans can only be filled at the designated Sunoco fueling stations in the infield. This move by NASCAR closes a loophole that some teams were exploiting on pit road to get an advantage with fueling during pit stops.

These days, when discussing fueling during pit stops, teams talk about things like head pressure and flow rates. It’s all fancy terminology used to describe how teams can get the fuel out of the cans and into the cars faster. What teams discovered, is that filling cans as full as possible allows the fuel to flow faster from them. But when cans get filled at the Sunoco stations at the track, they aren’t filled to capacity. The Sunoco workers put approximately the same amount of fuel in each can, which leaves a little extra space. Crew members were then taking these cans to pit road, and adding extra fuel to them from storage cans.

In doing so, and getting better flow rates from the cans, teams can have faster pit stops and get cars fuller, which creates a competitive advantage. Especially at tracks where tires aren’t an important factor, like Daytona and Talladega. Having cans that dump faster allows fuel only stops to be quicker, the now popular two tire/two can stops to be quicker, and for cars to be completely full on standard four tire stops.

Some teams have been getting away with this all season, but in recent weeks NASCAR has become vigilant in their efforts to stop the practice. Officials have been walking pit road during the race and forcing teams to remove extra storage cans from pit stalls. There was not a rule in the rule book prohibiting it per se, but NASCAR has been letting teams know all season they didn’t want it to happen. Now this bulletin makes it official.

Thank you Barney!

barney
I grew up listening to Barney Hall on MRN, and just wanted to say thank you! An iconic voice that will be missed every week. For more on Barney’s retirement, click here.

(MRN Photo)

The Future For Edwards & Biffle

As has been reported nearly everywhere, both Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are in play on the free agent market. Nobody on either side is saying much, and that silence is deafening. What Biffle does will likely be dictated by the move Edwards makes, but make no mistake, Roush Fenway Racing could be about to lose their top two drivers.

During the last free agent year for Edwards, it took a monster deal put together by RFR and Ford to keep Edwards in the 99. After nearly winning the championship in 2011, Edwards missed the Chase in 2012, and was a non-factor in the 2013 Chase. This combined with a shortage of wins is why Edwards is again looking for a new ride. He wants to compete for wins and championships, and he wants to do it now.

The focus and speculation by many seems to be that Edwards is on his way to a potential fourth Gibbs car, but don’t bet on that just yet. Edwards is rumored to have been spotted in the Team Penske shop in recent weeks, and he would make a potent addition to the Penske lineup. Ford doesn’t want to lose Edwards, and a move to Penske would at least keep him in the family.

For Biffle, any move he makes will most likely be made after a resolution comes for Edwards. Edwards is ten years younger than Biffle, and clearly the more sought after free agent. An Edwards departure from RFR would leave Biffle in a very strong position to negotiate a nice extension with his current employer but we’ve also heard that Biffle could be in the mix for that potential fourth car at JGR, or in a third car for Michael Waltrip Racing.

With a lot of the season still to play out, my gut right now says Edwards is gone and Biffle stays. The promotion of Trevor Bayne feels like RFR expects to lose at least one of them, and I think that is Edwards. Biffle would be the top dog at RFR if he stays, which isn’t true if he moves to JGR or MWR.

Pit Gun Technology Speeding Up Pit Stops

It’s been a common thread this year; a driver has a shot to win, but a bad pit stop or two derails the whole day and somebody ends up getting called out on the radio or national television. Yes, the pressure is as high as it’s ever been on the pit crews with track position being at a premium, but some teams are at a disadvantage before they even step off the wall.

One area many teams have spent time and a great deal of money improving recently is the equipment used by the pit crews. The impacts (pit gun, gun, whatever you want to call it) specifically have seen a big jump forward in the last few seasons. If tire changers can get the lugnuts off and on faster, the entire stop can be sped up dramatically.

For a basic description of how an impact works, click here. One of the main innovations has been the removal of the traditional hammer system in the impacts. The hammers have been replaced with a clutch mechanism that improves the gun performance in a few ways. First, the removal of the hammers has reduced the rotating mass inside the gun which makes it smoother to operate and allows it to spin at higher RPMs than ever before. Also, the clutch keeps the lugnuts from being over-tightened in the event the tire changer stays on one nut too long. The guns effectively shut themselves off once the lugnuts reach a certain torque setting. These changes have resulted in some pit crews being able to do pit stops in the low 11 second range, or under.

Most of the top level organizations have the new style guns in some form or another. Some, like Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, seem to have a little better handle on them than the others. And in the hands of the right tire changers, the results can be pretty amazing.

The problem with these changes, and one of the reasons we’ve seen mistakes, is not everyone has these new style guns. And even among the teams that do, not all are equal. The pit crews that are at a disadvantage know they must push the envelope to keep up with the haves, and that can easily result in mistakes.

After what we saw at Charlotte, don’t be surprised if you hear this week about some changes to a few teams. Drivers that are trying to contend for wins and the championship will not stay quiet for long about slow pit stops.

These. Kids. Are. Good.

I really, really, really hope you’ve been paying attention this season to what is happening in the lower series and with a few upcoming young drivers. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney may be three of the best young drivers we’ve had come up in a long time. There are a few others who will make their marks before the year is over, but these three in particular are the future of the sport.

The influx of “funded” drivers into the sport is something we’ve discussed on this site ad nauseam in the past (some of you might say ancient past). It’s easier for team owners to bring in a kid with his own money, than it is to take a chance on a young driver with no big time backer behind him. Because of this, some really good drivers never got legitimate shots to prosper. These three are an exception.

Blaney and Elliott definitely had a leg up because of their name recognition, but both are in the seats they’re in because they are very talented. Race wins in the Nationwide Series and Truck Series for both prove that.

Larson is a different story. He came up how guys used to come up, and how we wish they would all come up. No famous family members, and no rich benefactor writing checks to get him in seats. He earned every ride by winning, and winning a lot. Larson is a throwback to a different time, when all drivers wanted to do was drive. If Chip Ganassi would let him, Larson would still be running mid-week sprint car shows all over the country.

Blaney is running a limited Nationwide and Cup schedule this season, but don’t expect him to be without a full time ride in an upper series for long. If Penske can’t hang on to him, somebody else will give him that chance in the next year or two.

At this point, the future for Elliott would seem to be behind the wheel of a Hendrick Motorsports Cup car. It might be a few years away, and will probably depend on how much longer Jeff Gordon wants to drive, but make no mistake, Mr. H. won’t let young Chase get away.

As for Larson, he’s obviously found a home in the Cup Series with Chip Ganassi and the Target ride. Going forward, Ganassi will have his work cut out to keep Larson in the fold. There have already been rumors of other teams making offers to Ganassi for “Young Money,” and his growing popularity and early success will make him a target for bigger teams (no pun intended).

Keep an eye out as the season progresses, because there are probably two or three other drivers in the Nationwide and Truck Series who could become household names very quickly. They have the talent and the backing to succeed, they just need that one break through performance.

Iowa Rain Out Causes Pit Crew Problems

On a normal NASCAR weekend when the Truck Series and/or Nationwide Series run companion to the Cup cars, there are a lot of pit crew members who double or triple dip. Crew members make some extra cash and get more reps, and the teams get top talent pitting their cars. But this last weekend presented a unique challenge for teams with the trucks in Texas, NNS cars in Iowa, and Cup cars in Pocono. With good weather, there were many guys who could have pitted two, or all three races. A rainout in Iowa threw a wrench into those plans.

Once it became official that Saturday night’s NNS race was postponed, the race was on for teams to get essential people from Iowa to Pocono, and for those teams with holes to fill in Iowa to find replacements. Most crew members are committed to their Cup teams first, so none of the big Cup teams were affected. But there were also some smaller Cup teams like BK Racing and Front Row Motorsports that had to scramble for fill-ins.

Because so many Nationwide teams rely on Cup crew members, there were holes to fill up and down Iowa’s pit road. Teams used backups, crew members from teams in other series, and some retired over-the-wall veterans made comebacks.

If you watched the race, it was probably pretty evident who was using replacements. The race was dominated by Austin Dillon, and that was helped in part by the fact that his team was fully intact. The same was true for teammate Brian Scott. Sam Hornish got most of the #22 crew, because his team is made up of a lot of Cup guys, and the #22 was pitted by replacements. All three Gibbs cars are usually pitted by Cup guys, so all three had mostly new teams. Even race winner Trevor Bayne didn’t have his full usual crew.

Two drivers who were victims of bad stops by fill-in crews were Ryan Blaney and Brian Vickers. After starting in the back, Blaney had to come from the rear of the field a second time in the race after there was confusion on an early pit stop. And later, confusion during a two tire stop for Vickers put him deep in the field, and ultimately led to him being involved in a wreck with Alex Bowman and Travis Pastrana.

When crews are thrown together at the last minute, it can be difficult to get everyone on the same page. Different teams use different methods, and any breakdown in communication can lead to disastrous stops. It’s vital for crew members who are thrown into these situations to back the pace down, make sure they know the calls, and just do the job right.

It will be back to business as usual this weekend with both the Nationwide and Cup cars at Michigan. But teams will again be looking for replacements the following weekend, with the NNS teams tackling Road America in Wisconsin, and the Cup Series heading out west to Sonoma.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Restarts

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t understand why there has been so much discussion this week about restarts. The rules are really pretty clear. The green flag waves, the leader can go between the two lines, you can’t beat the leader to the line, and don’t change lanes before the start/finish line. Seems pretty simple to me. And regardless of whether you think Montoya had a bad restart or not, Jimmie Johnson broke the rule and was penalized in accordance. It was an open and shut case.

But today at Pocono, the discussion continued as both drivers involved made comments regarding the situation. In a nutshell, Montoya says he did what he was supposed to do, and Johnson called Montoya out for “flopping.”  Johnson also called NASCAR out for not doing anything about Montoya’s flopping, and wants NASCAR to make it clear what is and isn’t allowed.

I don’t know about you, but JJ’s comments sound like sour grapes to me. He broke the rules, got busted, and just doesn’t want to admit fault. It’s difficult to feel sorry for him.

Going forward, I don’t expect NASCAR to make any changes to the restart policy. The rules are not difficult to understand, and we have plenty of restarts every week that are executed without incident.

As a side note, this whole situation was evidence that NASCAR does not indeed favor and want the #48 to win.

Gibbs Ultimately Owns This Penalty

Have you ever gotten a speeding ticket?

If the answer’s yes, did you try telling the officer, ‘that wasn’t my intent’?

Or maybe you were just a MPH or two over the limit, did you try telling him, ‘I wasn’t speeding that much’?

When he got done laughing at you, did he still write you a ticket? My guess is, he did.

Welcome to NASCAR rule enforcement. The body has very little sympathy for intent or amount, and zero tolerance for infractions related to tires, fuel and engines.

Joe Gibbs Racing found this out the hard way yesterday – not that they shouldn’t have already known. When you move beyond the specified limits and beyond the tolerances provided, it’s likely NASCAR will throw the book at you.

JGR is facing, pending an appeal, a six race suspension and $200,000 fine for crew chief Jason Ratcliff, a loss of 50 driver and owner points, the loss of Kenseth’s win toward the Chase wild card berth, a six week suspension of Joe Gibbs’ owner license and the loss of owner points for the next six weeks thanks to a connecting rod that did not meet weight requirements. Toyota has also been docked five points toward the manufacturer’s championship.

The penalty was reminiscent of the one levied to Carl Long in 2009 after he was found with an illegal engine at the Sprint All Star race. Long was fined $200,000, docked 200 points (the equivalent of 50 points under the current system) and suspended for 12 races.

His suspension was eventually reduced on appeal, but he has been unable to pay the fine and hasn’t worked in the Cup Series since.

Regardless of the claims of ignorance in both cases, there are two general rules that reign supreme: (1) the team is ALWAYS responsible for the equipment it uses, regardless of who/where it comes from; and (2) if the team exceeds tolerances, regardless of the amount, it has broken the rule.

Every team member, owner and driver knows this. And I suspect, at this point, most fans do too.

I understand all the arguments here – the amount that exceeded the tolerance was small; Gibbs didn’t have any control over this; they didn’t do this on purpose. In the end, none of them matter.

NASCAR, in 2013, is a sport of fractions of an inch and thousandths of a pound. Teams will do whatever they have to do, shave whatever they have to shave in order to score that competitive advantage (not saying that happened here). Because of this, the sanctioning body has to work hard to maintain the integrity of the sport and enforce the rule book, regardless of intent.

I sympathize with Gibbs. And if recent decisions are any indication, I suspect the appeals panel will reduce some of the penalties. But at the end of the day, NASCAR did what it had to do – send the message that engines are out of bounds, the Generation 6 car is not to be messed with and when they give you a rule book, they’re not joking.

The Tattletale Issue

Let me just say this first: I don’t care that somebody threw the Penske guys under the bus. There, I said it. (Cue the “you work for Hendrick” trolling in 3…2…1…)

Last week, after both Penske cars were busted by NASCAR at Texas for some creative rear-end components, Jenna Fryer wrote that NASCAR may have been tipped off, and possibly by folks from Hendrick Motorsports. Both the #2 and #22 were parked in the garage next to Hendrick teams, and it would have been the perfect opportunity for a peek at what Penske was up to. But here’s the thing (and the reason I don’t care), NASCAR has open garage stalls for this exact reason.

In the essence of fairness and to create an atmosphere of compliance, NASCAR keeps the teams’ garage stalls open and the inspection process in full view of anyone who wants to watch. If you know that you have to worry about NASCAR officials AND the team next to you, it makes getting away with cheating more difficult. It’s also why when teams do get busted for illegal parts, NASCAR puts those parts on display to show the entire garage.

Another point that needs to be made here is that NASCAR isn’t little league baseball. There is a lot at stake, and if you can’t handle a little gamesmanship, maybe you should find something else to do.

Now that I’ve angered probably half of you reading this post, let the hate-commenting begin!

Cup Start-And-Parks Dwindling

The practice of starting-and-parking has been a much discussed topic over the last couple of years.

If you aren’t aware, starting-and-parking refers to a system in which teams enter a race and pull into the garage after only a few laps with a perfectly good race car in order to collect prize money. Teams can turn a profit doing this, because they save money by not hiring a pit crew or buying expensive sets of tires. But whereas this has been fairly prevalent in recent seasons, it is happening a lot less this year.

NASCAR, while not outlawing the practice completely (it’s complicated), has tried different methods to discourage the start-and-park teams. They’ve tried making early exiting teams go through a complicated inspection process, and this year they reduced the prize money paid to the five lowest finishers.

For most of 2012, it wasn’t uncommon to see as many as six or more cars pull off the track early. Some did it all year purely for profit, and others used it as an opportunity to raise money so they could run other races to the finish. Tommy Baldwin is an example of the latter.

But this season, the most cars we’ve seen start-and-park in a race is three. No teams did it at the Daytona 500, and of the five teams to do so, only two, the 44 of Scott Riggs and the 19 of Mike Bliss, have yet to run a full race. The 33 of Landon Cassill, the 98 of Michael McDowell, and the 95 of Scott Speed have all raced to the finish at least once.

I think the reasons why we’ve seen the reduction are twofold. First, I believe NASCAR’s efforts have made some impact, even if it’s only been small. But I think the biggest hurdle for these teams this season has been the introduction of the Gen 6 car. The start-and-park teams are smaller and not flush with cash, and converting old cars to the new version is expensive. Many rely on buying old cars from the big teams, and it will be some time before any Gen 6 cars are available on the secondary market.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see if more start-and-park teams emerge. Inevitably, it will be easier (i.e. cheaper) for the small teams to get Gen 6 cars, and the practice may grow again. It’s not something I’m sure you will ever see go away completely, but I’m glad to see more teams showing up every week intent on running to the checkered.

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