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.

NASCAR Still Working Out New Inspection Process

The introduction of the Gen 6 car this season has brought with it some new equipment for the inspection process, namely the new laser measuring rig (see details and a photo here). The laser system helps NASCAR more accurately measure the chassis and things like where and how the rear end is located. But the implementation of the new process has not been seamless. had a story on March 2nd about some of the difficulties with the system. In it, it was mentioned that Jimmie Johnson’s #48 was thrown out of the inspection line twice for adjustments before it finally passed inspection for qualifying on Friday at Phoenix. And his team isn’t the only one who has experienced this.

When cars are found to be out of tolerance, teams must get out of the inspection line, make adjustments, and get back in line. The new system measures the cars much more exactly, and it has been tougher for the crews to make minute adjustments to satisfy the system. As with Johnson’s car, some teams make adjustments and go back through, only to find they have more work to do. All of this takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time.

At Phoenix a few weeks ago, the pre-race inspection process took so long that some cars were still being pushed onto the grid while the National Anthem was playing. And for Las Vegas and Bristol, NASCAR opened the garage on Sunday a full hour earlier than normal.

One of the other problems facing teams with the laser system, is that nobody outside of NASCAR owns one. The systems are too cost prohibitive for the teams to build, and the teams won’t know for certain that their cars meet tolerances until they arrive at the track.

Debuting the new style car this season can only help the sport, but it’s clear that  both the teams and NASCAR still have some kinks to work out.

What Did We Learn At Daytona? Nothing.

If you read or hear any media member say this week that Jimmie Johnson is on his way to a sixth title, or that Danica Patrick is a contender, or that the Gen 6 car needs to be tweaked, know one thing: they don’t have a clue.

Did Jimmie win the 500? Yes. Did Danica break some records and finish in the top ten? Yes. Did the Gen 6 car provide some underwhelming racing? You see where this is going. But conclusions about the remainder of the season cannot be drawn based on one race where a small piece of metal atop the intake becomes the great equalizer. Crazy things always happen at Daytona and Talladega (see Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski’s first wins).

Michael McDowell and J.J. Yeley both had top ten runs at Daytona, and I don’t hear anyone singing their praises and proclaiming 2013 contention. Let’s be smart and not do the same for any other driver just yet.

So before we start crowing champions, let’s at least give this thing five races before we start prematurely jumping to any conclusions. Deal?

Track Position Could Be Key At Daytona

While you are taking a breather from the non-stop Danica coverage, consider this: this year’s Sprint Unlimited had 17 less lead changes than last year’s Bud Shootout. Granted the 2012 Shootout was seven laps longer, but it also wasn’t broken up into segments which kept the field together. Combine the number of lead changes with the fact that after gaining the lead during the first round of pit stops, Harvick was never far from the front, and we could possibly be seeing the re-emergence of the need for track position at Daytona.

Here is another stat from the Unlimited to consider: Harvick led 40 of the 75 total laps, while no driver led more than 17 laps in the ’12 Shootout (and no more than 10 consecutively).

In the last several years, the need for track position at the restrictor plate tracks had all but disappeared. A driver could go from the back to the front so quickly that teams didn’t worry about where they started or how much time they lost during yellow flag pit stops. We even saw some drivers pit second time by so as to avoid a congested pit road. But the Unlimited may have shown us that the Gen 6 car is changing the game.

Especially late in the race on Sunday, don’t be surprised to see teams try some strategy moves to get their drivers near the lead. I believe it is highly likely that with a few laps to go only those very near the top five will have a legit shot at the Harley Earl trophy.

A Car of Tomorrow Renaissance

I read a post the other day over at Autoextremist (a fantastic automotive blog) about the optimism surrounding the introduction of the Gen 6 car even in the face of continuing struggles for NASCAR, and it got me thinking about the recent evolution of our race cars. In the post, Mr. De Lorenzo talks about NASCAR’s unwillingness to change, and brings up the argument about races being too long and there being too many cookie cutter tracks. I agree that we probably have too many similar tracks, but I think he is incorrect in what he calls NASCAR’s “head-in-sand approach.” The Gen 6 car’s adoption is a perfect example of NASCAR’s ability to change, and their quest for a stronger sport.

As we’ve discussed ad nauseum over the years here at TNI, the reasons behind NASCAR’s fall are many. The sharp decline in the economy has played probably the largest role, but I also think the introduction of the COT did serious damage. Even though Cup cars haven’t been anything close to approaching a stock looking car for at least two decades, the COT erased what little was left of brand differentiation. But, in NASCAR’s defense, the COT made a lot of sense when it was brought about.

Put into use for the 2008 season, the two biggest reasons for the creation of the COT were improved driver safety (brought about mostly by Dale Earnhardt’s death), and a leveling of the competitive playing field. On both counts, the COT was successful. The COT put the drivers in a much safer position inside the cars (see video here for proof), and the competitiveness of the races was dramatically improved.

But where NASCAR had hoped to satisfy the fans’ want for better racing, the use of a common template to do so destroyed any brand recognition outside of emblems and headlight decals. NASCAR seriously underestimated the importance to both the fans and the manufacturers of how the cars actually looked.

I think at this point in our exploration of the car evolution it’s key to remember that NASCAR is a reactionary body, as are most similar entities. Problems are addressed as they arise. The COT was in no way a proactive move, which brings us to this season’s introduction of the Gen 6 cars.

Now that NASCAR has figured out ways to keep drivers safer (car improvements, HANS devices, SAFER barriers, etc.), and improve the quality of the racing, both of which are fundamental to NASCAR’s future health, they see and are addressing the next set of issues: aesthetics.

In the new world of corporate involvement in sports, everything has become about three letters: R.O.I. It’s not good enough anymore for companies to just have their logos displayed everywhere. They want real results, and they want to be able to measure those results. Executives must have empirical data to show stakeholders that spending big money on sports actually helps business. For the manufacturers in NASCAR, this means a return to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Having race cars look much closer to their stock counterparts  will aid in this effort.

NASCAR is also hoping that having much more attractive race cars will bring back some of those fans that have walked away from the sport over the last few years. Now they can say the drivers are safer, the racing is as good as it’s ever been, and look how great the cars look!

Whether or not the Gen 6 cars will have a real positive effect on the sport remains to be seen. But I think it’s unfair to say that NASCAR isn’t trying to make improvements. Are they probably too reactive? Yes. At the end of the day though, NASCAR wants whatever will make the fans happy and keep them engaged. Because lots of engaged fans means more money for all involved.

The Nationwide Series Is Going To Be Awesome In 2013

Thanks to a strong mix of young drivers and veterans trying to fight their way back to the top, with help from the NASCAR rule limiting drivers to one series for points, we are about to see the re-emergence of the Nationwide Series in 2013.

I mean, have you seen the driver lineup? Instead of the championship battle really coming down to two or three drivers like we’ve had the past few seasons, there are maybe as many as eight or nine guys that could have a legitimate shot at the title.

The battle for the 2012 title came down to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott Sadler, and Austin Dillon. Stenhouse is moving on to Cup, but his entire championship winning team is returning to back Trevor Bayne’s run. No major changes are in store for Dillon, but you’ve got to think a year’s worth of experience only makes him stronger. And Sadler, while not with RCR anymore, has moved on to Joe Gibbs Racing, which has had one of the strongest (if not the strongest) NNS programs over the last several years.

Other key returnees include Sam Hornish Jr. (who will have veteran Greg Erwin calling the shots), an emerging Michael Annett, and Justin Allgaier who will have a revamped team (Jimmy Elledge won’t be back in 2013).

The two newcomers who will provide the stiffest competition for the established drivers are Regan Smith with JR Motorsports, and Brian Vickers in a team car to Elliott Sadler at JGR. Smith will have a first time crew chief in Greg Ives, but he did win the NNS finale at Homestead for an improved JRM. And Vickers, who already has one championship in this series, will be tough to beat with JGR behind him.

Another driver to keep an eye on next season is Parker Kligerman. He picked up his first Truck Series win last season, and he’ll be driving for a KBM team that was strong at every race last season. Also, don’t be surprised if Kyle Larson emerges in the coming weeks as a part- or full-time NNS competitor.

Who’s excited?!

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