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Caraviello: One place where speeding up, slowing down collide

April 06, 2011, David Caraviello,

Pit road is the one place where speeding up, slowing down collide

Even when the cars are slowing down, it's still all about finding speed. Over-the-wall crewmen want drivers hitting the pit box with their right-front tire locked up, so the tire changer can zero in on where to position his impact wrench and spend less time removing the wheel. Motoring down pit road at what feels like a crawl, drivers have their tachometers set not for the speed limit, but the limit plus the 5 mph buffer allowed by NASCAR. During final practice, drivers work to find reference points at the entrance to pit road, so they know just how deep they can charge in without getting busted for speeding.

"You can shave off a second or two on a guy that's not charging there," said five-time defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, "and we know what a half a second does on a pit stop. Imagine 2 seconds. We're maximizing and trying to save time, every inch around that race track."

Pit road, where speed limits are set and enforced to safeguard the well-being of the crewmen and officials who work along it, is the one place where a driver has to harness his natural desire to go fast. It's a place that demands speed and slowness all at the same time, where service on the car is done in a torrid rush, but the trip from one end to the other can seem painstakingly deliberate. It's where drivers operate not below the line that separates speeding from a legal pace, but right on it, all the while hoping they don't fall off.

Which is exactly what happened to Johnson on Sunday, when his hopes for another victory at Martinsville Speedway were dashed by a pit-road speeding penalty on his final stop, and where a car that had been in second place wound up 11th. On pit road, where the margins for error are so narrow -- a few extra seconds here or there can translate into several positions on the race track -- even one of NASCAR's greatest champions can make a mistake. Every driver is trying to get all he can, and sometimes they try for too much. Earlier this year, Johnson noticed some drivers inching past him on pit road. He tried to raise his game, and Sunday he paid for it.

"I would say we're living in a world of half-a-mile an hour, in terms of how close it's calculated from a team standpoint," said Johnson, referring to the estimated difference between how fast cars are going on pit road, and how fast NASCAR will allow them to go. "We're walking a tightrope, every team on pit road, with pit road speed."

It becomes a strategic game of maximizing speed without going too fast. The No. 48 team chooses its pit stall based partly on where NASCAR's timing lines fall, so it can benefit from the progression of slowing down and then speeding up on either side of a pit stop. At Martinsville, pit road speed is 30 mph, but NASCAR allows 5 mph of wiggle room. "Every team sets their tach for 35 mph. That's just how it is," Johnson said. During his first years in NASCAR, crewmen would get on him during pit-stop practice for not locking up his right-front tire, which helps the changer more efficiently hit that first lug nut. Before he gets in the car, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus review a sheet that shows where NASCAR's pit road timing zones are, something his spotter reminds him of during the race.

"There are numerous times that I have come into the first segment, tires locked up, and been like, oh, I'm in trouble," Johnson said. "You give as much back as you can, so you don't know where that timing line ends, that segment ends, so you just slow way, way down ... and at some point, you think, OK, I think I'm past the timing line, now I'll get back up to the speed I'm supposed to run. So there's a lot of moments on pit road where I've been left cringing, just waiting to hear, '48, speeding, pass through,' or whatever it is. And when you don't, it's like, whew, I guess I did it right."

Racing at NASCAR's highest level is so competitive, though, that a cringing feeling is almost required every trip down pit road. Sunday, it was warranted when Johnson was forced to restart at the tail end of the field for speeding on a pit stop with 33 laps remaining. Immediately after the race, a frustrated Johnson argued the ruling, believing the infraction to have occurred in the segment of pit road following his pit box, an area where because of the pit stop his average speed was 8 mph. Monday, he received NASCAR's pit road data and realized he had been misinformed, and that the infraction had occurred before he entered his pit box.

Johnson made a public apology to NASCAR for his post-race comments, with one caveat -- he said he'd like to see pit road times made public during the race, to prevent public disagreements like the one that arose after his penalty at Martinsville.

"I made this point once before, and still think it's a very valid point -- that if the pit road segment times were broadcast live for everyone to review, it would eliminate this finger-pointing. And at the end of the day, it's probably not good for me to climb out of the race car and call NASCAR's credibility into judgment, and I apologize to NASCAR for that. But when you're only dealing with part of the information, and you're in the heat of the moment, it's easy to react," he said.

"They have the information being sent to a computer that they're reviewing in race control. It would be very easy to broadcast that signal, just like they do for timing and scoring, for all the teams to see. At that point, when it's coming up [in real] time, there's no argument. In a world of black and white that we live in now, we're all looking for that transparency. If I were them, I would believe it would be the smart move to make, just to eliminate this. We have this controversy once every month, once every couple of races it comes along. If we have that data instantly, like NASCAR is reviewing it, it would, one, be cool to add another layer of information for the fans to digest. And two, it would eliminate people like myself on Sunday ... making comments in a way, probably harming our sport and the credibility of our sport. I think it would be smart to go that route."

NASCAR does not agree. According to series spokesman Kerry Tharp, "We don't feel the need to display the speeds to the other competitors to let them figure out the other teams' strategy." Tharp added that teams can communicate with series director John Darby at any time during the race to verify their pit road speeds, and that teams know where the speeding threshold is to begin with. Teams can also receive a computer printout of pit road speeds from NASCAR by stopping by the series hauler after the race.

Although Johnson said that's not always practical, given that it takes some time for officials to get from the control tower above the grandstands back down to the garage, Matt Kenseth said the reports have always been available. "You can go afterward into the trailer and they'll give you the printout of what section you got caught in and how fast you were going and that type of thing," he said. But Johnson's presence, and the way the No. 48 team has tried to use the timing segments to its advantage, increases the issue's profile in this specific instance.

"Everybody's starting to get into it, but those guys especially, for years, have been figuring out where the timing lines are, and the only way they can get you on pit road is they time from line to line to line, the computer does," Kenseth added. "If your pit box is in between two lines, they speed like crazy. If you go a little bit too fast over that line and get to the next segment, you know you're going to get caught speeding in that segment. So really I think that's what it's about. They're just trying to achieve the segments as they can, and just probably missed it by a few feet."

In all fairness, this very issue has come up before, and then as now NASCAR has shown zero enthusiasm for the idea of broadcasting pit road speeds live to the masses. Despite the considerable clout that comes with Johnson's on-track accomplishments, that stance is unlikely to change as a result of Sunday's instance. In the same vein, teams are just as unlikely to change their approach toward pit road -- which is searching for new ways to speed up and slow down, all at the same time.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.