As the race for track position intensifies, drivers push the limits on pit road, contributing to an increase in speeding penalties that raises questions about what should be done.
While NASCAR seeks different rules to enhance the racing – Sunday’s Brickyard 400 features a high-drag package to aid passing – the easiest place to gain spots remains pit road.
That reward comes with a risk. Pit road speeding penalties are up 17.1 percent compared to this point last year and up 22 percent from two seasons ago. Six drivers, including former champions Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, were penalized for speeding in last weekend’s Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Any little bit you can gain on pit road is such a big deal,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said.
With caution laps up 5.7 percent from last year and 11.4 percent from two years ago, drivers have additional chances to stop for service. Pit road also can be crowded throughout a race with a record 91.2 percent of cars running at the finish – nearly 10 percent higher than two years ago. More cars on pit road means more positions to be gained, more risks to take and more mistakes that can be made.
The result is that nine of the season’s first 19 Sprint Cup races have had at least five pit road speeding penalties issued with 12 such infractions called at Las Vegas and 11 at Bristol.
“We’re all on our pit crews to have faster pit stops, but at the same time, we need to have good rolling times down pit road,’’ said Keith Rodden, crew chief for Kasey Kahne. “It’s kind of the monster that we’ve created.’’
With that increase in pit road speeding, what, if anything, needs to be done — or can be done?
Should NASCAR eliminate the 4.99 mph allowance above the pit road speed limit given to teams before a penalty is called?
Should the timing lines be removed to prevent cars from speeding between those lines and then braking to get under the speed limit?
Should other changes be made?
WHAT IS THE SPEED LIMIT?
When NASCAR states the pit road speed limit, it isn’t really that number. Teams are allowed to exceed the limit by 4.99 mph before they are punished. The speed limit for last year’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was 55 mph, meaning teams weren’t penalized until they reached 60 mph.
The cars do not have speedometers but use a tachometer and light system on the dashboard to alert drivers when they’re nearing the speed limit. As teams become more precise in setting their light system, is it really necessary to have the allowance?
“I’ve never understood why they have a posted speed limit of 40 and then give you 5 mph,’’ Brad Keselowski said. “It’s like saying out of bounds is here but it’s really here. Where is it? It’s really the 5 mph you add to it. I’ve never really followed that kind of logic.’’
Chad Little, NASCAR’s managing director of technical inspection and officiating, notes that the buffer on pit road is similar to what NASCAR does in inspection of vehicles, allowing a tolerance in measurements.
“It’s consistent with a lot of our rules,’’ Little said. “Here’s the rule, and here’s the buffer or allowance that we’ll give you guys.’’
TIME TO REMOVE TIMING LINES?
Jeff Gordon, who saw chances to win at Martinsville Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway impacted by speeding penalties earlier this season, wants the timing lines on pit road eliminated.
NASCAR determines pit road speeding by measuring the time it takes to go a certain distance. The timing lines divide pit road into segments to limit how fast drivers can go.
Yet, teams exploit that. Drivers briefly accelerate in a segment and brake before crossing the next timing line to stay within the pit road speed limit for that zone. If a driver stays under the time allowed to pass through each segment, they’re not speeding – even if they did go above the limit momentarily.
Teams often pick pit stalls intersected by a timing line. That allows the driver to fire out of the pit stall since they’ve already started their time in that zone while the car stopped for service.
“We’ve got to get rid of these speed lines,’’ Gordon said. “It doesn’t make any sense. The speed limit is the speed limit. You should never be able to break the speed limit. You should carry the speed limit all the way down pit road.
“What we do is find pit stalls to try to get around that. So we’re ramping up and slowing down and that’s what got us in Martinsville. We were just too aggressive with it.”
Little says that NASCAR feels the system is fair for all competitors, noting it’s up to teams on how aggressive they want to be.
Keselowski won the 2011 Bristol night race by employing that tactic better than others, leading Gordon to raise questions about that then. NASCAR respond by adding more timing lines at Bristol to limit how much a driver could exceed the speed limit before entering the next segment.
Should additional timing lines be added to pit road if NASCAR is going to keep the system?
“Unless you made it as short as the length of a vehicle, there’s still going to be the opportunity to recover from any speeding mistakes in the zone,’’ Little said. “It’s just how you want to slice it. We feel that the system right now is manageable for us, it’s accurate and fair to the teams.’’
DETERMINING PIT ROAD SPEED LIMIT
Pit road speed varies because of the uniqueness of each track. Little says series officials consider the track’s size, the layout of its pit road and how wide it is to determine the speed limit for that event.
Martinsville Speedway, which has a tight pit road that begins in Turn 3 and goes to Turn 2 has a 30 mph pit road limit (not including the 4.99 mph allowance).
Charlotte Motor Speedway’s speed limit was 45 mph this year. Speed limits at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway – where pit road is wide – is 55 mph.
With more cars pitting and an increase in speeding penalties, it can raise a safety concern. A benefit NASCAR noted with going to the camera system to monitor pit stops this season was that it kept officials from going over the pit wall – taking them out of a potentially dangerous situation.
With cars entering and exiting their stalls, traffic nearby and pit crew members servicing cars, it can create a chaotic scene for a driver.
Trevor Bayne noted a race last month at Michigan International Speedway when he was pitted beside Casey Mears and ran near him on the track. It added another challenge to the pit stop as they stopped together.
“I’m pulling into my box as his guys are jumping over the wall,’’ Bayne said. “I’m dodging the front tire carrier and trying to get into my box without making them mad, but I have to do my job. That’s one of the most precise and hard jobs with people’s health on the line. It can make up a lot of time if you do it right, or you can really mess it up if you do it bad.’’
Sprint Cup points races with most pit road speeding penalties this season:
12 – Las Vegas
11 – Bristol
7 – Daytona 500
6 – Martinsville
6 – Dover
6 – New Hampshire
Sprint Cup drivers with most pit road speeding penalties in points races this season (races where penalties were committed in parenthesis):
Michael Annett – 6 (Martinsville, Bristol, Bristol, Pocono, Pocono, New Hampshire)
Paul Menard – 6 (Martinsville, Bristol, Bristol, Pocono, Pocono, New Hampshire)
Carl Edwards – 4 (Daytona 500, Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway, Dover)
Matt Kenseth – 4 (Phoenix, Pocono, Daytona II, New Hampshire)
JJ Yeley – 4 (Daytona 500, Auto Club Speedway, Talladega, Kansas)