When caution flags wave late in an event, crucial decisions need to be made, and in a hurry.
A flow chart runs through a crew chief’s mind to make a call that the team, fans and sponsors hope is correct. A lot of weight is put on one man’s shoulders very quickly and he needs to be choosing correctly. This is what he signed up for and why some make healthy paychecks. And why some can gain gray hair.
A series of questions need to be answered fast.
Where are we running? Late in the Sunday’s race Kurt Busch was leading when the final yellow flag waved. At times this position can be a sitting duck. I have seen a driver dominate races only to have a late race caution flag wave and ruin his day. If, say, twenty cars are on the lead lap and the leader pits and all other nineteen stays out, his finish will be poor. If the leader stays out, and all other nineteen pit for fresh tires, his finish will be poor.
Leading can be tough. You go first. The leader is the first one to the commitment cone and decides with no knowledge from the other teams. Everyone behind can make a quick choice when seeing who will come to pit road.
What does our car need to be good? Speed cannot be sacrificed late in the game. The machine has been adjusted all day to keep up with the changing track surface. That does not change because of a late race shootout. Teams have left their good cars alone while another has made a smart adjustment and gone on to steal a victory.
How many laps are left? Work on the car for the laps that lay ahead. A crew chief is no longer trying to win a 500-lap race. He is think of winning a 10, 20, or 30 lap race, whatever the case may be. If an air pressure change brings a car to perfection in a 25-lap run but there are only 12 laps left then he needs rethink his strategy.
How many cars are on the lead lap? This goes hand in hand with how many laps are remaining. With a healthy number of cars on the lead lap at least a few in the back will probably try to stay out. The question is, how many? And do you have enough time to pass an unknown number of machines and still get to victory lane?
What do you think the other competitors will do? Some will stay out like I just wrote. Some will change just two tires attempting to gain tack position. Some will sacrifice track position and change four tires for speed. A calculating gamble, combining all of our above factors.
And double file restarts make a difference now. That came into play at Bristol. The higher groove was faster all day. That is where Busch chose to restart when leading, with the speedway’s progressive banking.
When the green flag waved for the final time Busch had four fresh tires. He was the first car that exited the pits with that advantage. He had four cars that changed only right side tires ahead of him. There were 10 laps to go. But Busch restarted fifth and his closest challenger all day Jimmie Johnson restarted sixth, in the preferred high lane. Johnson also had four fresh tires thanks to another good Chad Knaus call.
The restart told the tale of the finish as Johnson used that high lane to gain some distance on Busch and get the lead quickly. Busch had to contend with the lower groove just long enough for the laps to wind down and Johnson to get away and hoist the trophy.
Busch’s crew chief Steve Addington made the decision that he felt would win the race. But it was the decisions of the other teams that simply did not play out to the Penske team’s favor. Every single one of all the questions brought up here came into play at Bristol’s conclusion. And they all were asked and answered within seconds of each other.
Richard Petty said, “The best you can do on any given day is put yourself in position to win. Circumstances dictate the rest.” Addington and Knaus provided perfect examples of that at Bristol.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)
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