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Caraviello: In tire strategy, normal rules don't apply

May 18, 2011, David Caraviello,

Past two Cup Series winners buck the trend on pit road to reach Victory Lane

At Dover, taking four tires on the race track has always been as much a hard-and-fast rule as splitting aces is at the blackjack tables inside the casino. The one-mile concrete speedway is fast and relatively wide and produces enough tire falloff that drivers with four fresh tires can typically chase down those who took two or none. But as this past Sunday's event proved, typically does not mean always.

"Dover, four tires, it's kind of a no-brainer," Jimmie Johnson said. "You always take four. Well, it didn't work out."

Final Laps

When it came down to tire strategy the past two weeks, both Regan Smith and Matt Kenseth bucked the trend to take the checkers.

When it comes to tire strategy in NASCAR's premier series, clearly the normal rules no longer apply. Just look at the past two races, both of them won on gutsy gambles that initially seemed desperate and doomed to fail. Regan Smith stays out of the pits during the last round of stops at Darlington and lines up for a two-lap shootout against Carl Edwards, with two fresh tires. Matt Kenseth takes two -- making the snap decision while the car is up on the jack, no less -- while a trio of contenders who dominated the event at Dover International Speedway take four with 33 laps remaining.

Conventional wisdom dictates that neither of those frontrunners should have stood a chance. At Darlington, Edwards thought he'd drive right by. At Dover, Edwards, Johnson and Clint Bowyer -- who combined to lead 353 of 400 laps -- figured they'd storm right back up through traffic and decide the outcome among themselves. And yet, not one of those scenarios unfolded as planned. Smith held on, outdueling Edwards in a green-white-checkered finish. Kenseth stayed out front and was followed across the finish line by Mark Martin, who turned a no-tire gamble into a runner-up result. Of the three drivers who dominated the Monster Mile, none finished better than sixth.

Those unlikely back-to-back victories illustrate what's become an often-frustrating game for drivers and crew chiefs, who late in races find themselves needing to not only outrun the competition, but outguess them as well. Tire gambles have long had their place in NASCAR, and some of them remain epic in stature -- think Elliott Sadler's Bristol victory in the spring of 2001, which concluded with a 162-lap tire run. But track position has become so valuable that the field can be shuffled at any time by a variety of two-tire or no-tire calls capable of completely altering the complexion of the race. This isn't one or two drivers taking a calculated risk. This is the field rolling to pit road with crew chiefs guessing over what their adversaries are going to do.

"We all know that it's important to get track position on pit road. We've been faced with this reality for years and years, and it just continues to ramp up," said Johnson, who wound up ninth Sunday. "The numbers worked for the guys who stayed out and took two. It doesn't work out that way every weekend, and that's the hard part to figure out. If you're with the masses, you've made the right call. If you're in the minority, you've made the wrong call. Last week [at Dover] the three best cars were in the minority, and it didn't pan out. You can make decisions, but it all depends on the numbers and how many people make that same decision with you."

But here's the hitch -- drivers and crew chiefs often don't know which group they're in until after the round of pit stops has unfolded. Teams have personnel scanning other drivers' radio channels looking for information, and crew chiefs and engineers scope as much of pit road as they can to try and grasp what the competition is doing. But pit road is long, end-of-race scenarios are hectic, and it's impossible to be in the know about everything. It's obvious who stays out, not as obvious who takes four or two, which makes Kenseth's on-the-fly decision Sunday that much more impressive. You cast your lot and find out where you stand when everyone lines back up for the restart.

"I think the tires are lasting longer, they're staying around longer. You still have good grip when they cool off a little bit. "


"They played it well, especially for [Kenseth] in winning the race and [Martin] for finishing second," Johnson said. "The numbers worked for them, and that's one thing a crew chief can't see on pit road. It makes it tough, and that's what's determined these last two races."

"It's definitely a guessing game. You're never very sure," added Kasey Kahne. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it is part of what we do. It's part of just being there late in the race, having that opportunity, being on the lead lap. The thing that kind of gets upsetting at times when you run up front all day long, maybe you take four tires, think that everybody will, six or eight cars take two, there's not enough time to get back to the front at that point. There's too many good teams, too many great drivers and teams out there that you can't just pass in five or ten laps, it just doesn't happen. You kind of feel like you wasted the rest of the day. Everybody has the choice, zero, four, two, whatever you want to put on."

Sure, clean air means a lot. There seems little question that this current generation of Sprint Cup car performs better outside of traffic, likely one reason the drivers who dominated at Dover got bogged down on the final run. Track position remains valuable. But the tires themselves, Kahne believes, also play a part. He doesn't sense as much falloff, which increases the odds for drivers making gambles like those Smith and Kenseth have attempted the past two weeks.

"I think the tires are lasting longer, they're staying around longer," Kahne said. "You still have good grip when they cool off a little bit. It's just like you're in practice. You go out, come into the pits, work on your car, go out 10 minutes later, you can run the same speed you were running 10 laps prior to that. It's just all about cooling down and then having a lot of tire grip. I remember when I first came into the sport, it seemed like the tires fell off more then and it would create that guys wouldn't be able to put on two tires and still win a race. Right now the way the tires are, the cars have so much force and load on the tires, they've had to make them so strong and tough, I think it's tough to get that kind of happy medium there. But I like it myself when you burn your tires off and you need tires. I think it makes it more exciting. It's not really how it is right now."

Right now, it's a trying time for crew chiefs who risk making the wrong decision even if they choose the one that's been proven to work in the past. Their jobs promise to be no less stressful at Charlotte Motor Speedway, home of Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race and next weekend's Coca-Cola 600, and a track that lent itself to tire gambles even before the rules began to change.

"We've seen a lot of two-tire stuff at Charlotte now with the asphalt that's there," Johnson said. "So I would say that's going to be a pretty common move, to do two. When you'd do four would probably be the tough part to figure out. You'll see guys working different strategies. But two tires will work very well at Charlotte."

So brace yourself for potentially more of what we've seen the past two weeks, teams making what appear to be risky tire decisions and perhaps riding them all the way into Victory Lane. After Darlington and Dover, would anyone be surprised? "I think you can win either one of the races [at Charlotte] like that," Kahne said. "It's part of clean air. Track position is really big late in the race with us. If you get a long run, you definitely need tires. But if it's a short run, it can easily be won on no tires or two tires, just like the last two weekends have been."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.