NASCAR Cup Series
By Bozi Tatarevic
8 Minute Read
Editor’s note: Bozi Tatarevic is a professional racing mechanic and pit crew member. He will provide technical analysis for NASCAR.com throughout the 2022 season.
Richmond proved to be an exciting race as we saw a variety of strategies play out with some teams choosing a six-stop strategy while others opted for seven as they evaluated tire wear and what would be the optimal way to get to the finish line. The seven-stop strategy proved to be the successful one in the end as Denny Hamlin and his crew took the No. 11 Toyota Camry to Victory Lane.
As we shared in our race preview, tire fall-off played a significant factor in the strategies being chosen, but so did pit stops. The debut of the new Joe Gibbs Racing pit-stop choreography ultimately played a factor in allowing Chris Gabehart to execute a successful strategy for the No. 11 Camry.
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The first run of the race replicated much of what we saw in practice and qualifying as Ryan Blaney took off and won the first stage. William Byron joined him up front as teams started the race with the setups they had in qualifying, so similar speed was to be expected. It was no surprise that Blaney led the charge based on what we saw on Saturday.
Kurt Busch had fuel-system troubles early in the first stage that resulted in a caution flag and the opportunity for teams to pit early in the 400-lap race. Kyle Larson led the charge with an attempt at the first alternate strategy as he and a handful of other drivers pitted on Lap 12 for tires and fuel. The stop seemed to work out for Larson in the short term as he was able to work his way up to the top 15 during the first stage but not enough to gain stage points.
The completion of the first stage brought everyone to pit road and cars pitted on Lap 74. This was a pivotal stop because it allowed teams to make adjustments based on driver feedback and allowed the first chance for the Joe Gibbs Racing pit crews to try out their new choreography.
As shared in the past, this new choreography sends the rear-tire changer around the front of the car so the changer does not have to wait for the car to pass and allows faster access to the right-rear tire. The first set of stops showed some debut jitters as most of the Joe Gibbs Racing pit crews attempted the new choreography but ended up being slower than their traditional pit-stop routine at a first attempt.
While the focus was mostly around Ryan Blaney at the front, there was a battle that was building up a few positions back as Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin traded spots right at the edge of the top 10 in the first half of the race. Even though the No. 11 crew had a slower first pit stop than what it had done in practice, it still managed to beat the No. 4 crew by over a second with the new choreography.
Hamlin and Harvick split up as their crew chiefs opted for different strategy plays. Harvick followed the cue of Martin Truex Jr. and pitted at Lap 127, while Hamlin stayed out. This effectively created two groups of cars on track with about six cars staying out in an attempt to gain position toward the end with an alternate strategy.
That pit cycle gave us a chance for the first look at a faster version of the alternate Joe Gibbs Racing pit stop choreography. The No. 18 crew completed a four-tire change in what was a record 9.2 seconds at the time. The 18 crew would later beat its own record by completing a 9.1-second pit stop on Lap 234, showing the efficiency of that choreography and falling just a tenth short of getting into the eight-second range as predicted before the race.
While the No. 11 crew was not able to beat the No. 18 for fastest stop of the day, it was only a couple of tenths short with stops toward the end of the race in the 9.3-second range. The advantage the No. 11 crew showed during the race was its flexibility to switch back to the traditional-style pit stop in the middle of the race in order to allow a crewmember to make an adjustment more easily on the car while staying within a few tenths of the alternate pit-stop choreography time.
Hamlin finally completed his second pit stop at Lap 154, which cycled him out way back around the 25th position with his teammate Martin Truex Jr. taking the lead after everyone cycled out. This point in the race would effectively split cars into two groups if they were maximizing their tires: Hamlin and those who stayed out were on a seven-stop strategy that would allow them to get a fresher set of tires later in the race; Truex and the majority of the field attempted a six-stop strategy with the goal of gaining enough track position to try to beat those with fresher tires toward the end of the race.
Rodney Childers appeared to notice what Gabehart was doing with the No. 11, so while the No. 4 car started with a strategy that alternated with the No. 11, it switched to following what the No. 11 was doing from Lap 234 – at which point Hamlin and Harvick started to see each other again right around the 10th spot. They eventually made it into top-five range as the race got closer to Lap 300, which showed that they had speed and pointed toward a good battle at the end of the race as both of those cars would have fresh tires they could put on to try to beat those that planned to stay out on the six-stop strategy.
Kyle Busch appeared to be on a six-stop strategy like his teammate in the No. 19 and William Byron, who was leading in the No. 24 as the last 50 laps of the race approached. However, the No. 18 ended up being forced into a seventh stop on Lap 351 as NASCAR noticed a piece of tape on the grille of the car. This effectively took them out of contention of competing with the Nos. 24 and 19 but also didn’t make them competitive with the Nos. 11 and 4 that were on the strategy with the extra stop and had adjusted their cars for that slightly shorter run.
The tape on the grille of the No. 18 ended up there 200 laps earlier as a crew member mistakenly attached it to the grille that feeds air to the engine and radiator instead of attaching it to the left-front brake ducts that feed air to the brakes. This mistake was likely a combination of the short amount of time available to apply the tape and the unfamiliarity with the duct location on the Next Gen car since the ducts haven’t been open for many races yet.
The design of the radiator duct inlet is such that adding a piece of tape would be negligible as the air is exhausted through duct outlets in the hood and since the grille also feeds the engine intake. Adding any amount of tape that could block off the radiator to offer an aerodynamic advantage would also likely choke the engine of power, detrimental to the engine output. While the tape application did appear to be accidental, NASCAR had to enforce it since it is explicitly outlawed by the rule book and ended up reviewing footage of when it was applied before officials black-flagged the No. 18.
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Hamlin and Harvick cycled out into the top 15 after that last set of pit stops but may not have looked like contenders to many from the outside as they were sitting a lap down with 40 laps to go in the race. Byron had the oldest tires on the track, and as the final laps of the race approached, it looked like that six-stop strategy might see some success as Byron and Truex appeared to be the ones who were going to battle for the win.
Those who looked carefully might have noticed Hamlin and Harvick were marching through the field, and it looked like Hamlin could make it as he was about 10 seconds back from the leaders with 18 laps to go but making up about half a second per lap. The finish becoming a four-way battle started becoming clear with about 10 laps to go. The pace of the No. 11 led me to head to their pit box with the expectation that some passes would be made.
Hamlin and Harvick made it by Byron with four laps to go and while Harvick tried his best to reach Hamlin, he was ultimately unsuccessful and Hamlin walked away with the win using a combination of driver, pit crew and strategy to put an entire race together.
While it may have seemed like Hamlin came out of nowhere, it started becoming clear toward the middle of the race that they were on a strategy that would put them in contention and some of their tools like the new pit-stop choreography helped to make that a certainty.
The No. 11 pit crew saved Hamlin more than six seconds during pit stops over the No. 4 crew as the day went on. But the most interesting stat on the pit-crew side was that the No. 11 crew spent less than a quarter of a second in pit-stop time during the length of the race over the No. 24 crew, even though they completed a whole extra pit stop.
This pit-stop time by the No. 11 included that first pit stop with the reverse choreography that was a little slower since it was their first time doing it in a live race. They were still not only able to meet the crew of the No. 4, which was on the same strategy as them, but match the No. 24 crew for total pit-stop time while doing one more stop in the end that gave Hamlin those fresh tires. That last stop was also directly significant on track position because the No. 11 crew beat the No. 4 crew by half a second in pit-stop time.
Entering and leaving pit road are as significant as the time of the actual pit stop itself and that proved to be another factor for the new pit-stop choreography as Hamlin was able to beat Harvick in overall time on pit road due to the faster stops, even though Harvick was faster than him in getting on and coming off from pit road.
This was the first attempt at this new pit-stop choreography, but it is already proving to be successful in time taken for a tire change. And it is likely to help even further as the crews perfect it and start hitting those stops in the eight-second range. We’re also likely to see additional benefits at tracks where fuel mileage is important as the fueler is now able to stay connected to the car for the whole duration of a fuel can instead of having to disconnect for a couple of seconds while the rear changer comes around.
Richmond was exciting from multiple perspectives, and hopefully it will be a preview of more races to come with heavy strategy and critical pit stops.