Pit road penalties are up more than 50 percent from last year in the Sprint Cup Series with much of the change related to NASCAR’s new officiating system.
NASCAR Talk examined violations from the first six races this year and last and found that penalties are up 52.9 percent with one infraction increasing by 1,000 percent and another by 166 percent.
The change comes as NASCAR uses a camera system this season to monitor every pit stop.
“You can’t hide anymore,’’ said Trent Cherry, head coach for Team Penske’s Sprint Cup pit crews.
The cameras, placed across from pit road, send video to a NASCAR trailer where series officials review each stop. With officials no longer over the pit wall, watching for oncoming traffic as they check for violations, they can better scrutinize each stop.
A result is that officials have caught teams not in control of a tire on the outer half of the pit stall 22 times – a 1,000 percent increase from last year. NASCAR called the penalty 19 times last season.
Joe Gibbs Racing has been guilty of the infraction four times this year.
“I can’t remember in 10 years when we had an uncontrolled tire,’’ said Michael Lepp, athletic director for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Chad Little, NASCAR’s managing director of technical inspection and officiating, admits that the uncontrolled tire rule has more leeway than others.
“That’s probably the one penalty that still has a lot of subjectivity in it,’’ he told NASCAR Talk. “That’s still one that we have to be real smart at and try to have a lot of consistency at.’’
While the camera system detects many penalties, the uncontrolled tire infraction often is determined by the official watching the pit stop video.
“We’ve come up with a checks and balance that as long as the person controlling the tire is within one step and he or she is purposely moving in the direction of the tire, then we’re OK with it, we feel they have the proper control needed,’’ Little said.
“Where you get your subjectivity is a step can mean different things. Are you running, are you walking, are you tall, are you short? We want the person controlling the tire to be cognizant to what the tire is doing. That’s the second half of that test. They may be in a step of it, but he’s not paying any attention to it and it’s starting to roll away.’’
Another key, some pit coaches say, for the increase in the uncontrolled tire violation is that absence of officials over the pit wall. While it wasn’t an official’s responsibility, they could corral a wandering 60-pound tire to prevent it from being struck by a car. Because officials no longer go over the pit wall, they’re not there to help.
Denny Hamlin’s pit crew was called for that penalty in each of the past two races. Had there been an official over the pit wall, Lepp notes that the official might have redirected the tire back toward the team and saved the team from those penalties.
“We’ve got to learn that that level of assistance is gone,’’ Lepp said.
Another key is a rule change that discourages teams pitted beside each other from grabbing an errant tire. Rule 10.11.1.k in the Sprint Cup Rule Book reads: “Any crew member interfering with another crew’s pit stop, causing the other team to incur a penalty or not, may incur a penalty.”
The rule was put in place after NASCAR saw teammates helping each other create quicker pit stops. Some read the new rule as penalizing a team for helping another even if it is for a safety reason. A result is that teams are less hesitant to help one another.
“We tell our guys don’t you dare touch another team’s tire or ask another team help you,’’ Cherry said. “You cannot touch another team’s tires, period.’’
Little says that “more than likely” a team helping another with an errant tire would not be penalized.
“We still want crew members from a safety standpoint (to help) and there’s a common sense involved here, too,’’ he said. “If a crew member on a team adjacent to your pit stall leans over and touches your tire, is that really a penalty? Probably not. If he stops that tire and assists you during your pit stop that probably is a penalty.’’
Lepp worries that if teams are less willing to help grab a tire for fear of a penalty, it could lead to a tire rolling into traffic on pit road.
“My biggest fear of injury on pit road is a tire getting hit because I’ve seen them fly and they generally go back toward pit wall,’’ Lepp said. “A car hitting one of those tires at 50 mph is scary. I’ve thought about it and coaches have thought about it. We’ve just got to learn to control tires. There’s a big safety factor in doing that.’’
Said Little: “We’re certainly going to keep an eye on it and if it becomes an issue, you know how NASCAR is, they react pretty quickly to safety issues.’’
Another penalty that has seen a significant increase this season is crew members going over the wall too soon. That has been called 16 times this season – an increase of 166 percent from last year.
Officials highlighted this area in the offseason when they met with teams and explained the new camera system.
“That’s just a discipline penalty,’’ Cherry said of the violation. “We’ve worked on it at Team Penske a bunch.’’
A penalty at the wrong time, though, could prove severe in a race or during the Chase for the Sprint Cup later this season.
“You don’t have a lot of room for error,’’ Cherry said. “Just preparing the guys as well as we can to be disciplined is a big part of it. I keep a very close eye on the penalty sheet. That’s important to me as a head coach to make sure our guys are coached up on what to look for and what NASCAR is looking for.’’
NASCAR also has seen 40 percent more speeding penalties this season. The new pit road technology has not impacted speeding penalties. NASCAR still uses electronic timing to determine speeding. So, why are speeding penalties up?
Lepp says that technology has played a role.
“We’re in the age of metrics and data,’’ he said. “Every week … we get pit road reports. We know the time of every pit stop. We know how the drivers are running the timing lines. Everybody gets it and they look at it. The key thing on there is … the time the car is moving on pit road.
Lepp says the time between the fastest pit crew and even the 10th-quickest can be half a second. That makes how fast a driver is at getting to their pit stall and back on track important.
“Drivers see that and they go ‘I’ve got to push the limits on pit road,’ ’’ Lepp said. “I think it’s just one more of many little things that make a difference. It doesn’t matter if you make a 10-second pit stop, if the driver was the 30th-ranked guy in rolling times, he erased the fast pit stop.’’