Pit road penalties are up significantly with NASCAR’s new officiating system

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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.’’

 

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”

RCR, Hendrick to collaborate on Chevy engine

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Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing will team up on research and development of a common Chevrolet engine after the conclusion of the 2020 season, the teams announced Thursday.

The two organizations will continue to function independently as they “fully leverage the knowledge and intellectual property of our two successful programs to advance Chevrolet’s engine for NASCAR,” they said in a joint statement.

Engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing (via ECR Engines) have earned a combined 20 Cup titles and the two teams have totaled 369 Cup wins.

Jeff Andrews, the new executive vice president at Hendrick Motorsports, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday that discussions about the venture between his team and RCR began two years ago.

“The day was going to come when we really needed to figure out how to get these two programs together,” Andrews said. “A tremendous amount of talent, people and a tremendous amount of equipment and resources between the two programs. How could we do this? How could we take the longstanding heritage between these two companies and get that together to start working on an alliance that truly would produce the ultimate powertrain for Chevrolet NASCAR?”

RCR is headquartered in Welcome, North Carolina and Hendrick’s campus is in Concord, North Carolina.

“I think when you step back and look at it, ultimately you have to get to a point to where, when you have these resources and you have these people, we have to do what’s best for Chevrolet, first and foremost, to continue to push their performance and get them back to the front of the field and get them wins and championships,” Andrews said. “Really, we work together in a very similar fashion. We started two years ago on the aerodynamic side with our groups working very close together and we’re kind of taking somewhat of that template and applying to the engine side in starting this joint alliance.”

Chevrolet last won a Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh championship. Since then, Chevy has not had a car reach the championship four.

The Cup Series is in the middle of the Round of 12. The series races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Of the 12 cars that remain, four are Chevrolets: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch.

Chevrolet cars have won six times through 30 races this season. That’s compared to seven wins in all of 2019, four in 2018 and and 10 in 2017.