News & Media

Pit strategy more a calculated risk than a gamble

March 09, 2012, Mark Aumann,

LAS VEGAS -- When it comes to late-race pit strategy, the options available to the crew chiefs seem almost endless: stay out or pit; fuel or no fuel; four tires, two tires or no tires.

To the untrained eye, the split-second decisions made on the pit box may seem as much a hunch as anything. But Brad Keselowski said the idea of a "pit strategy gamble" couldn't be further from the truth, especially in a city where gambling goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"When you have a strategy, it's like counting cards. When you have a strategy, you're not really gambling."


"A friend of mine tells me this all the time: 'You guys gamble all the time on pit strategy,' " Keselowski said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "Well, I don't like to gamble and so any move we're doing, there's certainly a risk percentage pre-calculated.

"I'd like to think that [crew chief Paul Wolfe] is very sharp on those things. And when you have a strategy, it's like counting cards. When you have a strategy, you're not really gambling."

Carl Edwards knows the good -- and the bad -- that comes with pit strategies. He had the winning strategy here last spring. But since then, Edwards hasn't been able to find that combination of on-track speed and pit-road strategy necessary to return to Victory Lane.

"We learned a lot about pit strategy last season because as these cars get closer and closer competitively, track position becomes that much more important," Edwards said. "There were a number of races last year where we were fast enough, we were leading, things were going great -- and we got that final caution.

"We'd come down to four tires and guys would 'gamble' and stay out or take two tires, get that track position and we saw the bad side of that a number of times."

Running well is a double-edged sword, according to Edwards, because it forces your strategy. Either the competition plays follow the leader -- or even worse, chooses to zig when you zag. And suddenly, you've lost all of the gains you made on the track.

"The better you're doing, the farther up front you are, the harder it is to take that risk," Edwards said. "You want to come get those four tires and play it smart. But sometimes you just can't do it."

A successful race strategy, like luck, is where preparation meets opportunity. You can play the percentages all you want, but if the perfect opportunity doesn't present itself, it all goes out the window.

Matt Kenseth can speak to that first-hand. At Phoenix, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig chose tires over track position -- and that strategy didn't pan out, particularly when the race turned into a fuel economy run over the final few laps.

"Pit strategy and track position is very important in today's racing, especially at a track like Phoenix," Kenseth said. "When you know you're four or five laps short and you're going to pit and do that, that's a gamble, but pretty much everybody was in the same boat."

What it comes down to, according to Kenseth, is reviewing past performance and hoping similar situations will crop up.

"The only thing you can really do is look at the past history of the races a little bit and take a calculated gamble," Kenseth said.

For Greg Biffle, it's more about knowing when to take a chance -- and when to realize that the odds of a gamble paying off aren't worth the risk.

At New Hampshire last year, Biffle was running second to Ryan Newman when the caution came out. But at the time, Biffle was well outside of his fuel window to make it to the finish.

"Gambling is gambling, but there's also reality and the reality is 12 laps short on fuel you're probably not going to make it," Biffle said. "Last week, we were two laps short on fuel, so that's a gamble. Twelve laps pretty much isn't a gamble, so, yeah, there are times you want to go for it and try to save fuel, and there are times where the reality is this isn't going to work -- like jumping over the puddle of water.

"There's a spot to gamble and a spot not to."

Keselowski's win at Kansas this past June is a perfect example of making a "gamble" work. While nearly everyone in attendance was focused on Kurt Busch running up front, Keselowski bided his time -- and his fuel -- in relative obscurity. That is, until Busch had to duck onto pit road with nine laps to go for a gulp of gas.

It was a victory that seemed to jump-start Keselowski's season. He won at Pocono and Bristol, fueling a late charge that landed him in the Chase, where he eventually wound up fifth in the points.

So the next time you see a crew chief working the numbers on top of the pit box at the end of a race, it's not as much of a gamble as it is a calculated risk. And in this case, the reward is a trip to Victory Lane.