Pit road speeding penalties on the rise in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

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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)

 

 

Sonoma/Gateway winners & losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — Martin Truex Jr. wins at Sonoma Raceway and Kyle Busch finishes second, giving the organization its 10th victory in 16 Cup races this season. For car owner Joe Gibbs, it capped off a weekend that included his grandson Ty winning his first ARCA race on Saturday at Gateway.

Matt DiBenedetto Finished a career-best fourth and was his first top 10 for Leavine Family Racing. DiBenedetto celebrated by thanking those who have given him a chance to run in Cup.

Ross Chastain A week after his win was taken away when his truck failed inspection, Chastain simply came back and won at Gateway after a call by crew chief Phil Gould to pit for fuel only late. Chastain only needs to be in the top 20 in points to be headed to the Truck playoffs and that will happen soon.

Ryan BlaneyHis third-place finish tied for his best finish of the year, matching what he did at Phoenix in March.

LOSERS

Daniel Suarez Had to start at the rear because of an engine change. He was running fourth when he made his last scheduled pit stop. However, the team was called for an uncontrolled tire. The penalty dropped Suarez to 27th with 24 laps to go. He finished 17th. The bigger issue, though, was that although he finished two spots ahead of William Byron, Suarez actually lost 16 points to Byron based on the difference in stage points. That’s important because Byron is now two points behind Suarez for 13th in the season standings.

Clint Bowyer Was running fifth on Lap 27 when he came in to pit because of a loose wheel. He fell to 37th and went on to finish  11th, a nice recovery but losing all that track position made his day longer. What might have been had he not had that loose wheel?

Chase ElliottEngine failure ended what looked like would be a top-five day, if not better. Instead, he finished 37th.

Ryan Blaney earns Sonoma top five after ‘smooth day’

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For Ryan Blaney, race winner Martin Truex Jr. and runner-up finisher Kyle Busch “were just gone” by the end of Sunday’s race in Sonoma.

“Just gone” was how Blaney described the roughly 30-second gap from Truex and Busch back to Blaney’s No. 12 Ford, which took the checkered flag in third.

That gap didn’t take away from a much-needed run for the Team Penske driver.

It was Blaney’s first top five in seven races (fourth at Bristol). It was also his second straight top five on a road course, following his win in the inaugural race on the Charlotte Roval last fall.

Blaney was the only non-Toyota car in the top five.

“Kind of a smooth day for us,” Blaney told FS1. “Qualified decent. The way the stages are, you can either choose to finish the stage out, get stage points, but you have to restart way in the middle of the pack, or pit early. That’s kind of the strategy we wanted to do.”

With the pit early strategy, Blaney restarted in the top five on both restarts and was able to briefly take second place on the second restart before losing it to Kyle Busch on a bump-and-run.

In a race that didn’t see any non-stage cautions, the race went green over the final 45 laps and saw green flag stops start with 30 to go.

Blaney never saw the leaders again.

“(A caution) would have given us a shot. I had no shot if there wasn’t a yellow,” Blaney said. “They were really good on long runs. You just give yourself a hope of restarting close to them and trying to make a move. We almost got the lead one time on a restart. I was hoping to get that shot again but it never came.”

In a season where he’s been outshone by teammates Brad Keselowski (three wins) and Joey Logano (two wins), Blaney was the only competitive Penske driver. Keselowski ran 18th and Logano placed 23rd after experiencing battery problems.

Blaney’s previous best Sonoma result in three starts was ninth.

“You come into every weekend expecting to run well, no matter if it is your best track or worst track,” Blaney said. “We had top-five speed all weekend. Not winning speed. We kind of hung around all day. We were able to hang in there and stay out of trouble and able to come home with a decent day and a race car that was intact, which is good.”

 

Sonoma Cup results, points report

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Martin Truex Jr. scored his fourth Cup victory in eight races, holding off Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch over the closing laps Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

Truex became the second driver to win consecutive Cup races at Sonoma, joining Jeff Gordon (who won three straight from 1998-2000).

Ryan Blaney finished third, followed by a career-best fourth place for Matt DiBenedetto and a fifth for Denny Hamlin.

It was the 23rd career victory for Truex, who has three wins at Sonoma. The 2017 series champion led three times for 59 laps, including the final 24.

Click here for the full results from the Sonoma race.

Click here for the full race report from Sonoma.

In the season standings, Ryan Newman moved into the 16th spot in the standings with a seventh at Sonoma, clinging to the final provisional playoff spot with 10 races remaining in the regular season.

Newman has a one-point edge over Jimmie Johnson, who finished 12th at Sonoma and slid a spot to 17th in the standings. Erik Jones (eighth at Sonoma) is five points behind Newman in 18th.

At the top of the standings, Joey Logano (23rd at Sonoma) leads by one point over Kyle Busch.

Click here for the Sonoma points standings.

Matt DiBenedetto celebrates career-high fourth-place finish

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Matt DiBenedetto celebrated his career-best fourth-place finish Sunday at Sonoma Raceway by thanking those who had given him the opportunity to run Cup and helped him with the road course.

DiBenedetto’s previous best in Cup was sixth at Bristol in April 2016.

“Proud of you man,” crew chief Mike Wheeler said to DiBenedetto on the team’s radio after the race.

The result also was DiBenedetto’s first top-10 finish of the season with Leavine Family Racing.

“This is a team effort,” DiBenedetto told FS1. “I’m so lucky to be doing this. My path to get here has been so out of the ordinary and old school, I’m so thankful. I can’t tell you how many people took a chance on me.”

DiBenedetto noted the team’s sponsors, Toyota Racing Development, Leavine Family Racing, and others.

“All those people had to say yes and … take the chance on me,” he said. “I can’t explain how thankful I am.”

After thanking wife Taylor for her support, DiBenedetto also thanked NASCAR on NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger, saying: “This one is for my buddy AJ Allmendinger for helping me so much (with the road course).”

DiBenedetto started 19th and did not go for stage points. Instead, Wheeler had DiBenedetto pit before each of the first two stages to set the team up for the finish. DiBenedetto was sixth when the final stage began.

DiBenedetto pitted for the final time on Lap 65 of the 90-lap race, later than most. That put him outside the top 10 but gave him tires that were a few laps fresher than many of his competitors.

DiBenedetto used that to his advantage. He returned to the top 10 on Lap 70 after passing William Byron. Ten laps later, DiBenedetto moved into the top five by passing Jimmie Johnson. DiBenedetto passed Kevin Harvick for fourth on Lap 86 and stayed there to the finish for his best Cup result in 156 starts.