Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Motor Mouth: Risky tire calls yield big wins

Chris Trotman/Getty Images
If you stepped away from Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Dover before 40 laps to go, then you probably expected the race to come down to a battle between Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, both of whom had been upfront all day, or Clint Bowyer, who was looking strong and leading at that point of the race.

But this is NASCAR, where things can change in the blink of an eye. Juan Pablo Montoya’s spin on lap 361 and the resulting caution completely altered the complexion of the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks.

Dover is just the latest race where tire strategy has determined the outcome. The previous week at Darlington, Regan Smith wowed the NASCAR world with his first win after the No. 78 team stayed out on old tires, holding off points leader Carl Edwards, who took two tires. Edwards claimed his first win of the season at Las Vegas when he took two tires to second-place finisher Tony Stewart’s four, borrowing a strategy Stewart himself had used earlier to gain track position.

As the leaders hit pit road for the last time at Dover, teams were once again faced with the dilemma of tires vs. track position. Several different tire strategies emerged, from four tires to two tires to no tires. Crew chiefs had no choice but to roll the dice and see how their decisions played out in the final laps.

Johnson had gone with four tires throughout the race and lead a race-high 207 laps, so it was "kind of a no-brainer" to take four, Johnson said later. Edwards, who had lead 117 laps, and Bowyer, who lead the last 29 laps, followed suit. Bowyer had taken two tires earlier in the race and complained of an ill-handling car afterward, so the No. 33 team went with four at this pivotal point of the race.

While Johnson, Edwards and Bowyer sacrificed track position for tires, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled on it, as each took two tires. Kenseth suggested the two-tire call to crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who agreed with his driver and made the call. It was a bigger gamble for Earnhardt Jr.’s teammate Mark Martin, who stayed out to take the lead on old tires.

In what would become one of the more unpredictable races at Dover, it was time for the teams to see how their strategies would play out. With less than 40 laps left at “The Monster Mile,” one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, it seemed there was enough time for the drivers who took four tires to make up the track position and put themselves in contention for the win. After all, the cars who took two or no tires would inevitably drop off, right?

Wrong. After the green flag flew, Kenseth took off. The No. 17 car caught and passed Martin within two laps and opened up a more than a one-second lead on Martin within 12 laps. Earnhardt Jr. had gotten two tires like Kenseth, but had the opposite results. After restarting third, Earnhardt Jr. fell back through the field, eventually finishing in the 12th position.

As for the dominant cars of Johnson, Edwards and Bowyer, the three drivers who at one point seemed most likely to win never even contended in the final laps. After being stuck in traffic, Bowyer finished 6th, Edwards 7th and Johnson 9th.

Dover is a good track for Kenseth, who already had one win under his belt here, but he had largely flown under the radar for the FedEx 400. Ultimately it was Kenseth’s suggestion of two tires and Fennig’s willingness to make the call that gave the 2003 Sprint Cup champion his second win of the season, as well as his second at “The Monster Mile.” The No. 17’s two-tire strategy was the call of the race.

As for Martin, crew chief Lance McGrew’s call to stay out on old tires helped the No. 5 team claim their best finish of the season, 2nd. It was a boost in what has been a so-so season so far for the No. 5.

It’s gutsy pit calls like these that are in part responsible for the variety of winners we have seen this season. With eight winners in 11 races, the level of competition is higher than ever in the Sprint Cup Series. As track position becomes more of a factor in many of these final pit calls, expect to see more crew chiefs and teams taking risks on tire strategy - putting it all on the line for the win - as the game they once knew appears to be changing.


FORD’S SHOW OF STRENGTH

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
At Dover, Ford Racing teams Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports continued their show of speed this season. At one point, four of the top five cars in the race were Fords (Carl Edwards, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose and eventual race winner Matt Kenseth).

Working out most of the kinks on the FR9 engine has proven especially fruitful for Roush Fenway. With Kenseth’s win at Dover, the organization boasts three Sprint Cup wins this season, more than any other race team. Kenseth, who has the nickname “Mr. Consistency,” could pick up another one (inspired by Charlie Sheen) - “Mr. Winning!” - as he becomes the third repeat winner in the series this year. Kenseth, now sixth in points, is practically a lock for this year's Chase, as his wins could count for one of the two wildcard provisions if he should fall out of the top 10 in the points standings. And let's not forget the points leader. Edwards, who earned his 9th top-10 finish of the season at Dover, has had the consistency and good finishes needed to contend for the title.

Richard Petty Motorsports had an impressive showing at Dover between drivers AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, though one was unable to capitalize on it. Allmendinger, who started on the outside pole after qualifying was rained out, ran all day in the top 5 before his engine expired, just before the race's halfway point. It was a blow for the driver of the No. 43, who hoped to contend for the win after leading 143 laps in the fall race last year. Meanwhile, Ambrose ran in the top 10 all day and sealed the deal with a third-place finish, his best of the season and tying his best finish on an oval. Dover marks Ambrose's third top 5 of the season, following a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas and a sixth-place finish at Texas.


FINALLY - 'NASCAR NONSTOP' IS HERE

NASCAR fans were treated to a surprise during Sunday's race telecast on FOX. For the last commercial break, viewers got to see a split-screen view of the race while commercials aired.

The side-by-side technique has been used by TNT for its broadcast of the July Daytona race in recent years, called "wide open," but that was the exception in NASCAR broadcasts. Fans have been clamoring for side-by-side viewing for years, after IndyCar started using it for its race telecasts on ESPN and Versus. With the split screen, viewers don't have to miss part of the race when it's time for a commercial break.

FOX decided to test the side-by-side viewing after a few sponsors agreed to jump on board. Judging by the response on social media sites, the split screen was a big hit with NASCAR fans.

This week, ESPN the network will utilize the side-by-side viewing during the broadcasts of the final 10 Chase races. Called "NASCAR NonStop," the technique will take over from the traditional commercial format about halfway through each race broadcast. According to Scene Daily, sponsors, tracks, networks and NASCAR have opened up to idea of side-by-side, making the timing right to try the technology.

As someone who also watches IndyCar, I've been a proponent of the side-by-side viewing and have enjoyed it during TNT's broadcast of the July Daytona race. In my opinion, this is a huge step for NASCAR and a big win for the fans.

Motor Mouth is a weekly column in which Skirts and Scuffs lead editor Rebecca Kivak spouts off about the latest NASCAR happenings. Continue the conversation by leaving a comment below. To read past columns, click here.

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