News & Media

Crew chiefs scrambling to find answers to new rules

February 11, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- They Daytona 500 won't be won on pit road, but more than one Sprint Cup crew chief is convinced the Great American Race will be lost there.

On the surface, that might sound absurd. Daytona International Speedway is a restrictor-plate race track where cars draft in large packs. It's one of the easiest places on the Cup circuit to overcome a mistake on pit road.

Nevertheless, in a season where NASCAR has more new rules than Real Time with Bill Maher, crew chiefs are scrambling to find answers to a mandated reshuffling of pit crew personnel.

The linchpin is the removal of the catch-can man from the equation. Coupled with a move to E15 fuel, NASCAR has introduced a closed fueling system that eliminates the need for a catch can intended to collect fuel overflow.

That change reduces the number of crew members allowed over-the-wall on a pit stop from seven to six and redefines several job descriptions in the process.

Typically, the catch-can man has been the one to make critical adjustments to the car during pit stops -- using a long wrench to turn the bolts that raise and lower the track bar or change the wedge (weight distribution) in the rear of the car.

Crew chiefs now will have to assign those duties elsewhere and may be more limited in the number of adjustments they can make.

"It's going to be tougher now with this fuel deal, because now you're going to have less of an opportunity to make an adjustment because you're moving guys around," said Tony Gibson, crew chief for Ryan Newman. "You may not make a double adjustment. Lots of times last year, we had enough time to where our catch-can guy would come over and make a left-side adjustment, then go around and catch the can.

"And then the tire carrier would do the right side. Now you don't have that extra guy, so does that guy try to do two adjustments, or do you just do one adjustment? What if one adjustment's not enough? It's going to put you in a box. There's going to be times, I think, to where you're not going to have time or the guy to make that adjustment."

Under the new system, the importance of the gas man increases exponentially. Crew chiefs are looking for strength and athleticism in that position.

"Your gas man just went from No. 6 or 7 on the list [in importance] to No. 1 or 2," said Brian Pattie, crew chief for Juan Montoya. "I switched positions in that spot because I think you need more of an athlete -- a big guy, strong, who's capable of doing multiple stuff. I think that spot just got upgraded. He's going to be multitasking a lot to make sure the pit stops are fast."

Crew chiefs might get creative

Even if relatively fast, pit stops will be slower than they were last year -- approximately 2 seconds slower, according to most crew chiefs. The fueling will be the limiting factor.

That gives crew chiefs another variable to consider. Do they send the car out when the tire changers are finished with their work, or do they wait until the car is full of fuel?

"A lot of crew chiefs may elect to call the end of the stop when the last lug nut's tightened and sacrifice a few gallons of gas for track position," Cup Series director John Darby said. "Other crew chiefs may say, 'Look, we're staying here until we're completely full, so we don't have to come back.' "

You can expect to see different deployment of over-the-wall personnel during four-tire, two-tire and fuel-only pit stops. Some crew chiefs are experimenting with lineups that include two gas men and only one tire changer or tire carrier.

"We're definitely looking at it more like an NFL playbook," said Darian Grubb, crew chief for Tony Stewart. "Depending on the scenario and the adjustments we need to have and the over-the-wall personnel we have at the time, we're going to make those adjustments and just make the call on the fly.

"I think you're pretty much going to see every scenario possible out there, because everyone is going to try to figure out the fastest way to do it, and as everybody gets better with the fueling systems and everything, you're going to see those speeds change and some of that stuff shift as we go along."

Gibson is convinced that fueling strategy -- and possibly fueling mistakes will decide the Feb. 20 season opener at Daytona.

"I just guarantee you that it's going to come down to a fueling deal at Daytona," he said. "It's crazy. We've gone through I can't tell you how many scenarios trying to figure it out -- and it's tough."

Qualifying rules changed, too

Fueling isn't the only thing crew chiefs have to worry about. In all three series, the qualifying order will be set in inverse order to practice speeds, with the fastest cars the last to make qualifying runs.

That's usually an advantage to the fastest cars when qualifying is held on Friday afternoon -- the track gets faster as the sun goes down and the racing surface cools. With tracks such as Pocono, Martinsville, Michigan and Dover moving qualifying to Saturday morning -- and others considering it -- there might be a benefit to holding back in practice and taking time trials before the sun is at its peak.

Add to that a new tire rule that gives Cup crew chiefs one less set to work with.

"A lot of cars, including us, would show up [at the track] in race trim, because we had an extra set of tires to burn off," said Dave Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch. "Now we don't have that extra set, so we're going to go and focus on qualifying.

"Now your qualifying order is determined by your practice speed, so it's going to be really important to post that speed to get that preferred qualifying time. There are some tracks where you don't want to qualify last. When qualifying is at nine o'clock in the morning, you want to be first out and not 43rd.

"So do you sandbag a little bit? The rules are definitely going to change our strategy, and each team is going to be definitely thinking about it for each event."

Pattie thinks the teams that keep the best notes on each racetrack will benefit most from the change to Saturday qualifying.

"I call that like a limited impound -- two practices and then you qualify, and then you race afterward, but you get your car back after qualifying," Pattie said. "So the notes we take and the documentation is going to be critical. You can change setups and qualify well and know that you can get back to your race setup and be perfect.

"I guess the guys that pay attention to detail and document more -- and I guess the engineering staff, obviously, will have to do a lot -- but the guys that can do that well and switch from qualifying to race trim will be the guys that can sit on the poles and still run well."