Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Motor Mouth: Pit crews pivotal to Pocono, Michigan wins

The final restart at MIS - the game changer for the entire race.
Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR
We’ve all heard that races can be won on pit road. The past two weeks have been perfect examples of this.

Jeff Gordon dominated the last stretch of Pocono after Denny Hamlin led a race-high 76 laps, succumbing to tire problems late in the race. But Hamlin found his redemption at Michigan, where for much of the day he was a non-factor until the final laps. In both cases, it was their pit crews who put these drivers in position to win.

During the final pit stop at Pocono, Gordon edged Kurt Busch to win the race off pit road and went on to claim his second victory of the season. The No. 24 crew had also gotten Gordon out ahead of Busch in the pits during the previous stop, before the race’s final restart with about 40 laps to go. As Gordon crossed the finish line, he radioed to his crew, “You guys won that one in the pits — way to go.”

Oddly enough, it was also with 40 laps to go that Hamlin got a lucky break at Michigan, when Juan Pablo Montoya and Andy Lally brought out the race’s fourth caution. Hamlin, who had been mired in and around 10th place, restarted fourth after a solid pit stop. When the fifth and last caution came out at Michigan with less than 10 laps left, it was Hamlin who won the pivotal race off pit road. Hamlin beat out Carl Edwards, who had been leading at the time of the caution but came out third in the pits.

What had been looking like another fuel mileage race came down to tire strategy at Michigan, but with most of the leaders taking two tires, that meant every tenth of a second in the pits was even more precious. Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford acknowledged afterward, “Pit crew put us in position to win the race.”

After the flawless performance of their pit crews put both drivers out in front, Gordon and Hamlin took advantage of the clean air. Once they got it, their cars took off and the nearest competition couldn’t catch up.

Gordon won over Busch at Pocono by a nearly 3-second lead. At Michigan, Matt Kenseth, whose No. 17 car had been strong all day, had the best shot at passing Hamlin for the win. But Kenseth got loose and went sideways; he saved the car, but not his chance at a third victory this year.

And so Hamlin and the No. 11 team scored their first win of2011. It ended a 16-race winless skid for Hamlin, whose season had been downright dismal since winning eight races in 2010. The win also makes Hamlin the 10thdifferent winner in 15 races this year.

Whereas Gordon owned the lead for the last 40 or so laps at Pocono, Hamlin gained ground from the race’s last two cautions. But the eight laps he led at the end were the most important – after all, it’s that final lap that counts.

For the No. 11, the strong performance of the pit crew was a victory in of itself. After problems earlier in the season, the team changed its front-tire changer following the Martinsville race. The No. 11 pit crew went on to win its second consecutive pit crew competition in May and now celebrates the fruits of its victory at Michigan.

With their win, the No. 11 is starting to look like the team that challenged Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team for the championship last year.

The win bumps Hamlin up from 12th to ninth in the standings. As Gordon sits 12th, 17 points outside of the 10thspot, it’s possible we could see these two compete for the two wildcard positions, should they not make the top 10 in points. Either way, expect their pit crews to play an important role in how these two fare over the next few months.

‘Oilpangate’

The circumstances leading up to Hamlin’s win at Michigan looked far from promising.

The No. 11, 18 and 20 cars of Joe Gibbs Racing were put under the microscope when NASCAR pulled the oil pans from all three teams during inspection prior to the first practice session. In a statement, NASCAR explained that the teams had not submitted the new pans for NASCAR’s approval. “Oilpangate” was the talk of the NASCAR community on social media websites throughout the weekend.

Most of the talk revolved around what penalties NASCAR might inflict on the three teams. As quickly as Friday evening, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby had dismissed the notion that the penalty would include a points deduction. According to Scene Daily, Darby compared the infraction to when Michael Waltrip Racing used unapproved radiator mounts at last year’s Texas race. In that instance, MWR’s crew chiefs were fined $25,000 and placed on probation through the end of the year.

Many wondered if JGR’s oil pans were illegal and if so, if the violation would result in stiffer fines. However, according to NASCAR, that was the never the issue in the first place. Darby told Scene Daily, “The whole issue has absolutely nothing to do with whether the oil pans are legal or illegal,” but that they were never submitted for NASCAR’s approval. In fact, the legality of the parts didn’t apply because the parts never made it to the track.

However, NASCAR fans and media have good memories, not to mention the drivers themselves. After the news broke Friday, Jeff Gordon added fuel to the fire when he tweeted on his official Twitter account, “All I'm going to say about Gibbs cars oil pan is that we had 100 point penalty for a flared left front fender that never went on track. #JG” Gordon was referring to the 2007 Infineon race, when he and the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson were not allowed to participate in practices or qualifying after unapproved fender modifications were found on their cars during the initial inspection. Indeed, Gordon pointed out an example – himself - where a points penalty applied for a part never used on the racetrack, showing an apparent inconsistency in NASCAR’s stance.

It's also fair to point out, though, when the resulting penalties were issued for the No. 24 and the No. 48 (which included both crew chiefs fined $100,000 and suspended for six races), the ruling said they had violated a rule where fenders may not be cut or altered except for wheel or tire clearance, which must then be approved by the series director. Giving the resulting penalties, we can assume this to be a more serious infraction than JGR's oil pans.

On Tuesday, NASCAR announced the penalties for Joe Gibbs Racing. The three crew chiefs -
Mike Ford (No. 11), Dave Rogers (No. 18) and Greg Zipadelli (No. 20) – were fined $50,000 each and placed on NASCAR probation until Dec. 31. The car chiefs on all three teams were also placed on probation, as well as the organization’s Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Jimmy Makar. As Darby had indicated, no points penalties were issued.

It’s highly unusual for a senior official like Makar to also be placed under probation for a team’s infraction. NASCAR did not provide an explanation as to why Makar was included in the probation.

In a team statement, Joe Gibbs Racing said they “did not follow the proper submission for approval process. We will not appeal NASCAR’s ruling.” Prior to the penalties, JGR President J.D. Gibbs said the team planned to submit the oil pans for approval.

The penalties for “Oilpangate” are the second infraction in just over a week for Joe Gibbs Racing. After Kyle Busch’s third-place finish at Pocono, the No. 18 Toyota failed post-race inspection when the left front was found to be 1/16th of an inch outside of the acceptable tolerance. NASCAR fined crew chief Rogers $50,000 for the violation and docked the No. 18 six driver and owner points.

Edwards had success at MIS, winning the
Nationwide race but feels that changes are
necessary for the Cup series.
Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCA
Edwards speaks his mind

Hamlin’s late-race victory off pit road left Carl Edwards lamenting what could have been. Before the final caution, it was Edwards who had been leading with 10 to go. But when Edwards came out third after the ensuing pit stops, it cost the points leader what could have been his second win of the year.

“I just hope NASCAR takes the opportunity to look at this race and take some downforce away. Track position shouldn’t be as important as it is. It would be nice to race cars instead of downforce,” Edwards said,making an appeal for design changes to the Sprint Car racecar, which are planned for the 2013 season.

At first I was confused by Edwards’ statement. Um, isn’t track position always important, especially in the last laps? It’s an advantage you want to have as the race winds down.

But what Edwards was referring to is the difficulty to pass with the current racecar model. Instead of races coming down to fuel mileage or tire strategies, as has happened in quite a few races this season, Edwards was saying races should come down to actual competition, where drivers are able to pass another for the win.

It’s hard to disagree with Edwards. The ability to pass with the Car of Tomorrow, the current model of Cup racecar, was dreadful during its first few years (it debuted in 2007 and ran its first full season in 2008). In fact, the lackluster quality of racing after the model was introduced likely contributed to declining interest in the sport, and could have factored into the lower ratings and attendance the sport has seen in recent years.

But strides have been made since the COT’s initial design,with last year’s replacement of the wing with the traditional spoiler, and a new nose and braceless splitter introduced this season.

Still, Edwards is calling for bigger changes. Edwards said because the cars are so similar now, drivers can run within a tenth of a second of each other. However, Edwards pointed out that running similar speeds doesn’t help when you’re stuck back in traffic and inhibited by dirty air. Edwards wants NASCAR to get rid of the downforce and make it easier for cars to race each other side by side.

Remember how I pointed out earlier how clean air helped Gordon and Hamlin when they got to the front? Yup, their pit crews were pivotal in getting the two upfront, where they could benefit from the clean air and hence more downforce, allowing them to run away from the field.

Not all drivers share Edwards' concerns about track position and downforce, though. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who finished second and third respectively at Michigan, see the situation a little differently.

Kenseth agreed it’s been harder to pass, but he suggested it could have more to do with the tires this year.

“I don't have any suggestions for what NASCAR should do,” Kenseth said. “I like this new nose in this car a little bit better. But seems like it's just a little bit harder to pass. But I honestly think that's probably the tire more than it is anything else. Seems like the tires we've been running this year lay down a lot of rubber, which is nice. But on the restart, it was slime bottom to top. You are on top of all that rubber sliding.That's what it feels like to me. I don't know if that's what it is or not," he said.

Kyle Busch agreed with Kenseth on the tires. “We don't clean off enough of the rubber for enough lanes to race on when we go back green. So if you run in the cleaned-off part of the racetrack, you have a lot of grip. Ifyou try to go up high, make it three- or four-wide, you start slipping and sliding, can't make up any ground. Hard to make up distance on the cars in front of you when you have that,” Busch said.

Busch actually commended the changes in the COT’s design that have allowed for downforce, calling the 2008 car “evil.”

“I don't feel there's anything wrong with what we have. I feel like we are able to race each other a lot more when we're side-by-side with this car versus the '08 car when we had the splitter and the wing on it,didn't have a lot of downforce in it. Them things were evil,” Busch said. “They were just so hard to drive. We were all sliding all over the place. It was hard to get beside each other and race each other anytime.”

It's also important to note that the races Edwards was referring to occurred on the intermediate tracks, where passing is more difficult regardless as the cars have more room to get strung out. That kind of racing is typical at tracks like Michigan and Pocono.

Will NASCAR take Edwards’ suggestions into consideration? As we get closer to 2013, we can expect to hear more about the design changes in the works and see what kind of influence Edwards had, if any, on the final model.

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 and other posts by Rebecca, click here.

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