Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen continued a trend that has seen pit road speeding penalties increase 375 percent compared to the three races before NASCAR doubled the number of timing zones.
And next for the Sprint Cup Series is Bristol — where there were 17 speeding penalties on pit road in the spring race.
This recent increase is significant because an ill-timed speeding penalty could impact a driver’s chances of racing their way into the playoffs or winning and collecting additional bonus points for the first round of the Chase.
NASCAR has issued 19 penalties for speeding on pit road in the last three races — Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen. That corresponds to when NASCAR doubled the timing zones on pit road.
The change was made after competitors raised issues about NASCAR penalizing Martin Truex Jr. for passing leader Kevin Harvick on pit road July 9 at Kentucky Speedway. Truex accelerated after he crossed the last timing line before his pit stall and passed Harvick, who had yet to cross the final timing line before his stall, and could not increase his speed.
NASCAR responded by doubling the timing zones. The move was made at New Hampshire on an experimental basis but the extra zones were not used to determine speeding penalties that weekend. NASCAR officially went to the increased timing zones the following week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
At Pocono, there were 18 timing zones on pit road — twice as many as earlier this year there. The change equated to a timing zone about every 2.5 pit stalls.
Shortening each timing zone, though, makes it harder for drivers to correct their pit road speed if they must.
“With the timing lines being so far apart, you kind of had some leeway to where if you are supposed to be running one red light and you happen to flash two or three red lights (on the dashboard), which would be speeding, you had an opportunity to kind of slow back down,’’ Aric Almirola said recently. “Now, with the timing lines closer together, if you just get a little bit greedy, or you look up to see where your pit stall is at and you creep up your RPMs a little bit, you’re going to get a speeding penalty.’’
Among those caught for speeding since the change are Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson (at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen), Denny Hamlin (Indianapolis), Tony Stewart (Indianapolis), and Joey Logano (Watkins Glen). Chris Buescher, who is seeking to become Chase eligible after winning at Pocono, was called for speeding in that race.
Here’s a look at the number of speeding penalties in the three races before the change at Indy and the three races since:
2 — Daytona
1 — Kentucky
1 — New Hampshire
4 — Indianapolis
8 — Pocono
7 — Watkins Glen
The 19 speeding penalties since the timing zone change are six more than the total number of speeding penalties called in the six Sprint Cup races before the change was made.
Now looms Bristol on Aug. 20. In the last four races at the half-mile track, NASCAR has called an average of 11.3 speeding penalties. That number could increase dramatically if drivers and teams do not properly adjust to these new conditions on pit road.
TONY STEWART HOT AGAIN
Tony Stewart’s hot run continued Sunday with a fifth-place finish at Watkins Glen, his fifth top-five finish in the last seven races.
It’s easy to overlook what rookie crew chief Mike Bugrarewicz has done this season. He’s made what have turned out to be the right calls in races and helped put Stewart in position to score strong finishes.
In seven of the last eight races, Stewart has finished better than he was running at the halfway mark. The result is he’s scored seven top-10 finishes and had a win during that stretch — his best stretch of racing since the 2011 Chase when he won the title.
At Watkins Glen, he was 18th before pitting three consecutive laps for fuel just past halfway. That dropped him to 32nd on Lap 50, but he moved into the top 10 on a caution after the restart when most of the field pitted and he didn’t. Stewart needed additional cautions to stretch his fuel and got it for a top-five finish.
He was 16th at the midway point at Kentucky last month and stretched his fuel to finish fifth.
A pit call by Bugarewicz to pit ahead of most of the field helped Stewart go from 16th at the halfway mark to the lead at Sonoma. He went on to win that race.
Though the differing pit strategies and weather issues at Pocono, Stewart was 13th at halfway and finished fifth.
At New Hampshire, he was 17th at the midway point but finished second. He was helped by being in the outside line, the favorable line, on a couple of late restarts.
The only time Stewart hasn’t gained spots from the halfway point to the finish was Indianapolis. He was pitting under green with 38 laps to go but the caution came out while on pit road. He was penalized for speeding on pit road as he exited to try to remain on the lead lap. Still, he finished 11th, placing only two spots worse than where he was running at the halfway point of that race.
Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen marked the fifth time in the last six races Hendrick Motorsports did not have a car finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was Hendrick’s top car at Watkins Glen, finishing 13th.
Sunday also marked the 17th consecutive race Hendrick has failed to win, tying the organization’s longest winless drought since 2001-02.
This is how rough it has been for Hendrick’s drivers: Only once in the last six races has any Hendrick driver scored back-to-back top-15 finishes. That was Jimmie Johnson, who was 12th at New Hampshire and then third at Indianapolis.
Johnson’s last-place finish Sunday — the result of being collected in a crash when he could not avoid Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s spinning car — marked the seventh time in the last nine races that Hendrick Motorsports has had at least one car finish 30th or worse.
Sunday also marked the fourth time in the last nine races that Johnson has failed to finish because of an accident. He was in that position after multiple penalties on pit road, including his
— Brad Keselowski’s third-place finish Sunday was his fourth top-three result at Watkins Glen in his last six starts there.
— Three drivers scored top-five finishes on both road courses this season: Denny Hamlin won at Watkins Glen and was second at Sonoma; Joey Logano was second at Watkins Glen and third at Sonoma; Tony Stewart was fifth at Watkins Glen and won at Sonoma.
— Denny Hamlin’s victory marked the eighth time in the last 10 races at Watkins Glen that the winner started sixth or better. Hamlin stated sixth.
— Kurt Busch extended his NASCAR record of running every lap to 22 consecutive races to start the season. He finished 11th Sunday, completing all 90 laps.
— Since his return, Jeff Gordon has finished 13th at Indianapolis, 27th at Pocono and 14th at Watkins Glen.
— Trevor Bayne’s ninth-place finish marked his career-high fifth top-10 of the season.