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With new pit-stop rules in place, NASCAR teams in development mode

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When NASCAR made an announcement shortly after last season’s Homestead-Miami finale about standardized rosters for teams’ at-track personnel, the only given was that nothing would be standard about how pit stops would be conducted in the future.

Competition officials reduced the number of over-the-wall crew members from six to five, in a move designed to enhance safety with fewer crew on pit road, and to shave costs for high-priced athletes providing pit service. The resulting onus for teams was to dream up new techniques under those constraints.

According to drivers attending this week’s NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, those pit-stop techniques are still in development.

“We’ve had very specific roles to fill and athletes that come in with fast feet, fast hands, a certain weight and size to operate the jack, get the car up off the ground,” said Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson. “To have this change now, essentially somebody has to do two roles; the systems all these teams have built into place are all changing. We’ve been scrambling like a lot of the other teams.”

For the past seven seasons, teams conducted pit stops with six crew members going over the wall: a jack man, a fueler, two tire carriers and two tire changers. With that number shrinking, one crew member will need to perform double duty.

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Several drivers, when asked, said that they haven’t seen a final product for what the pit-service choreography will entail. The expectation is that several teams will be taking notes on what other teams are doing once competition begins in the Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition on Feb. 11, ahead of the Daytona 500 season-opener scheduled Feb. 18.

“Now, they’ve got more responsibility and they seem to enjoy it,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said of early discussions with his Roush Fenway Racing crew. “I told them I thought it would be interesting after the Clash if other people are doing different scenarios with their five guys, how many will end up changing before the 500 — like if we’re all doing different stuff.”

One byproduct of the rules change will be longer pit stops across the board. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski said he expected the time of what’s considered a fast pit stop to jump from the 10-second range to 12 seconds and change. That led Chris Buescher, driver of JTG Daugherty’s No. 37 Chevrolet, to quip about how such a shift might affect the drivers’ role.

“We’ve been joking that we’re going to have time to get out and help carry a tire or whatever, but obviously it’s not the case,” Buescher said. “It’s a couple seconds. It’s a few. At the end of the day, it’s probably not going to make that big a difference.”

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick agreed, noting that his national series career began more than 20 years ago when competitive four-tire pit stops took almost twice as long to complete. Advances in technology and training techniques have trimmed those precious seconds, so teams will merely have to adjust to a different time frame.

“I think it will evolve like everything else,” Harvick said. “I think there will be some teams that do some things that other teams didn’t think about, and by the time we get halfway through the year it will be the new norm. Everybody at our place was up in arms about how heavy the pit gun was and taking the guys away on pit road and I was like, ‘Who cares?’ It is going to be the new normal eventually.

“Pretty soon you don’t talk about it anymore because it isn’t even a story. So just start practicing.”

With cars hitting Daytona International Speedway’s high banks in just more than two weeks, those preparations are already in full swing.

“It’s been an interesting challenge,” Johnson said. “It’s been hard because it’s changing our systems dramatically. At the same time, we’re kind of through that now and there’s a lot of optimism in mastering this.”