News & Media

For crew chiefs, Sonoma means grapes and math

June 23, 2012, Mark Aumann,

SONOMA, Calif. -- Weeks are spent crunching numbers to develop race strategy for road course

Willy Wonka would have loved Sonoma. Just like in his chocolate factory, sometimes you have to do everything backward to go forward.

Compared to an oval race, the cars in Sunday's Toyota/SaveMart 350 will be going the wrong way around the track, turning the wrong direction and pitting at the wrong times. If you think that's enough to make your head spin, imagine what it's like for a crew chief.

"A lot of calculating goes into this race. You want to try to make it on two pit stops, if anyway possible."


It's referred to as "working the race backward," figuring out in advance the best windows to make pit stops in order to have track position when it counts most, which is during the final green-flag run.

Sonoma strategy has been on Todd Parrott's mind for weeks, particularly how to get Marcos Ambrose's No. 9 Ford to consume no more than three full loads of fuel over the 110-lap distance on the hilly 12-turn course.

A fast car is always an advantage. But a car that's not only fast but also easy on the fuel gauge is a crew chief's dream. And Saturday's practices were all about figuring out whether Ambrose was able to have both.

"A lot of calculating goes into this race," Parrott said. "You want to try to make it on two pit stops, if anyway possible. That started weeks ago, back at the shop in testing and getting ready for this place.

"We'll work on our fuel mileage, and then we'll take all the numbers we have, put them all together and we'll sit down Saturday night and see what we can do and what laps we need to be looking at to make our pit stops."

A car that only needs to pit twice Sunday will have a huge advantage over those that have to stop three times. That's what Kurt Busch did on his way to winning in 2011, and Parrott hopes it's the strategy he can use to get Ambrose into Victory Lane.

But unlike an oval, where pitting under green will almost always put you one or more laps down, it's the preferred time to refuel on a road course. Fast cars with an open track can go much faster than those hemmed up in traffic.

"That's when you actually want to make your pit stops here, under green," Parrott said. "You don't want to get caught up in something coming out of the pits, or something crazy going on. So you work your strategy backwards and try to figure when you can make that final pit stop."

That's where a second -- or third -- set of eyes around this track is a huge advantage. Because anticipating when a caution might come out, and taking advantage of the situation, could be the difference between winning and finishing in the middle of the pack.

"A lot of times here, you'll be into a window when you can stop, and the spotter will come on the radio and say, 'Listen, there's a car stopped up here and there might be a caution, and when you see that driver come by, you tell him to pit, pit, pit while pit road's open,' " Parrott said. "Then when the caution comes out, you get your free pit stop. A lot of work goes into that."

But for all the number-crunching and head-scratching that will go on in the haulers, the best plans can go awry with one unexpected incident on the track. That's where Parrott has to be willing to jettison his game plan and audible.

"You go into the race with a strategy and a plan of what you're going to do," Parrott said. "But once the race gets going, if you get bumped and get knocked back into 15th, 20th position -- you're racing and scratching for your life -- and a caution comes out and you're back in traffic, you're not going to stay out while all these other guys around you are coming to get tires.

"So your strategy totally changes. Now you're pitting with them and getting tires so you can make up track position on those guys and try to get closer to the front. You get out of sequence to get back into sequence."

But you can't plan your strategy in a vacuum. What's happening on the rest of pit road is just as important as keeping tabs on your car.

While Parrott focuses on what Ambrose is doing, other members of the operation will be monitoring the radios and walking the pits, just making sure the competition isn't trying to gain some sort of an advantage.

"We've got guys, that's all they'll do, all day long, is keep up with who's pitting when and what they're talking about and leaning toward," Parrott said. "Just so we make sure all our strategy and all our plans are going together."

Sunday's race might look all backward and wrong, but at the end of the day, someone will pull forward and turn right into Victory Lane.