Friday 5: Lack of cautions limit gambles by crew chiefs

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The art of gambling along pit road could become more difficult even as some crew chiefs become more desperate.

Cautions are down 23.6 percent this season compared to this time last year. Simply, there are fewer opportunities for strategy calls by crew chiefs. It also means there are not as many chances to improve a car late in the race to challenge Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, who have combined to win 14 of the first 16 Cup races.

But what’s key is when those cautions aren’t taking place.

Cautions in the final stage of the race — when a crew chief can have the most impact with strategy — are down 41.4 percent from this point last season.

Seven of the first 16 races have seen either one or zero cautions in the final stage. While green-flag racing can be great for fans, it limits opportunities for crew chiefs to gamble.

“The lack of yellows is helping the dominant cars win the race and hurting the creative guys trying to mix up the field,” NBC analyst Steve Letarte said this week during the NASCAR America Debrief podcast with Nate Ryan.

Only once in the last four races has there been more than one caution in the final stage. That was Pocono, where Busch give up the lead to pit with 20 laps to go while Truex stayed out. Busch restarted eighth, behind cars that did not pit or took only two tires. A pair of late cautions limited Busch’s opportunity to get to the front quickly. The result was that he finished third to Truex. Kyle Larson, who also did not pit during that caution with 20 laps to go, finished second.

There have been a couple of races where gambles could have been made but weren’t this season. At Richmond, the lack of gambling was curious. At Michigan, radar and weather apps thwarted crew chiefs.

As the Cup Series heads into the final 10 races before the playoffs, beginning with Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the race for those final playoff spots will become intense. Only six of the 16 spots are set based on drivers who have won. 

If the trend continues of the same drivers winning — Harvick, Truex, Busch and Bowyer have combined to win the last six races — the pressure will build on teams hoping to win to make the playoffs. With fewer cautions, the chances of those teams will grow more desperate. 

2. Domination

At some point someone has to break the stranglehold Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have had at 1.5-mile tracks. Right?

Those three have combined to win the last 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks, dating back to last year’s race at Kentucky. Seven times during that streak, including the last four races, Harvick, Busch or Truex have taken the top two spots.

Of course, Truex has won the past two races at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday’s race and a 1.5-mile track.

The only driver not named Harvick, (Kyle) Busch or Truex to finish in the top two in a 1.5-mile race this season is Brad Keselowski, who was runner-up to Harvick at Atlanta in March.

And, if you discount the plate races, Harvick, Busch and Truex have combined to win 20 of the last 23 races (86.9 percent) since the start of last year’s playoffs.

3. Staying put

If you missed it, Denny Hamlin said on this week’s Dale Jr. Download that he is in the first year of a “long-term” contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.

The 37-year-old Hamlin, who has 31 career Cup victories but none this year, told Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he plans to keep racing for some time.

“I’ve got a good long-term contract now that we just started this year that goes for a while and maybe do another short one after that and that would be it,” Hamlin said. “Not that I don’t love the sport. I want to go as long as I’m competitive, obviously. That’s going to be right around the time my kids are going to start to be in sports or whatever they’re in to, and I want to be around for that.”

4. Good and bad

Kyle Busch has won four races, but he’s been passed for the win four times this season.

He’s won at Texas, Bristol, Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600. He was the last driver to lead before the eventual winner took the point at Las Vegas (Harvick won), Auto Club (Truex), Martinsville (Bowyer) and Pocono (Truex).

5. When will Chevrolet win again?

Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win is Chevrolet’s only Cup victory in the last 26 races.

Chevrolet’s last five wins have been by Larson (fall Richmond and both Michigan races last year), Kasey Kahne (Indianapolis last year) and Dillon (Daytona 500).

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