LOUDON, N.H. – It was a track position race held at a notorious track position-dependent oval during a season that has been dominated by incessant discussions about track position.
Yet when the outcome of Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway essentially was decided when the yellow flag flew for the last time, only three of 18 lead-lap cars made the ultimate track position move – skipping a pit stop to gain positions or at least avoid losing them.
It put Kevin Harvick in the lead for good. It put Erik Jones in second.
And it stunned their crew chiefs, who both were borderline incredulous about their brilliant calls.
“Is no one watching these races and seeing how this is going?” Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, asked rhetorically after the No. 20 Toyota driver hung on for a third place that solidified his playoff bid. “That’s what I’m thinking (while watching the last pit stops). Everybody’s scared to make that mistake it seems like.
“And I’m sure being aggressive, we can make a mistake, so I don’t want to be too cocky about it because it can bite you at any time. Because a lot of the strategy works or doesn’t work depending on how many guys do it with you.”
Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick, figured his call would fall in line with several lead-lap cars. He was astonished when the No. 4 Ford inherited the lead when Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski all pitted.
“When we went green with 80 to go, we had already decided if there’s another caution we’re not going to pit unless we get shuffled back to eighth or ninth,” Childers said. “When I told him to stay out, I honestly thought we would restart somewhere in the first two rows, and then everybody pulled in and we’re sitting there the leader when he comes into sight, and I’m like, ‘What in the world?’
“But anyway, you just don’t ever know when that’s going to work out.”
In this case, though, there was 265 laps of evidence to support the call by Childers and Gayle.
To the chagrin of drivers who fell back with strong cars such as Kyle Busch (watch this video) and Hamlin (“Track position, holy cow. It’s just amazing how much we’re talking about track position on short tracks”), passing was as much at a premium as ever on New Hampshire’s flat 1.058-mile oval, whose slick surface already had put five drivers in backup cars before the race.
While staying on track might have been less of a gamble with a car as fast as Harvick’s, strategy calls for track position had been working throughout the race – starting with Gayle’s decision to vault Jones into the lead with two tires on his first pit stop under yellow on Lap 48.
Only one other driver (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) opted for two tires. That again surprised Gayle, who had studied how well two right-side tires had worked in the race last season (when passing arguably had been easier).
“I expected to see 10 guys come take right sides with me,” Gayle said. “At the end, I was on the fence with the last call. I had in my mind, less than 20 (laps) to go, I’m definitely staying out. I was in that middle zone where tires might matter, but in the end, I kind of left it up to Jones. We were talking for a little bit on the radio. I’m 50-50, but if we get in the front row, I’ll stay.”
The third driver to stay on track was Martin Truex Jr., who vaulted from 10th to third and hung on for sixth.
Why weren’t there more takers when conventional wisdom suggests doing the opposite of the leader on pit strategy during a yellow flag with a late short run on a shorter track such as NHMS?
It seems as if there is a trend toward conservatism among the current group of crew chiefs, perhaps driven by the fact that more than half of them have engineering degrees and largely empirical worldviews. New Hampshire was reminiscent of the April 16, 2018 race at Richmond Raceway, where all 16 lead-lap cars pitted during a yellow with 10 laps remaining.
Tire wear factored heavily into those decisions, which is what made Sunday in Loudon even more perplexing. Hamlin alluded to wishing “tires actually meant something. They don’t right now.”
But that apparently doesn’t make the strategy much easier because it causes greater divergence on pit sequences.
“These races are the hardest to call of any of my career,” said Childers, a 15-year veteran of Cup. “The tires don’t seem to wear as much. They don’t seem to fall off as much. It gives everybody a lot of opportunity to do different things.
“So even when you think that you’ve got it right and you put four tires on, you think you’re in the right spot and then a caution comes out and somebody else can put two on or somebody can stay out, it just keeps shuffling.”
Two days before Harvick delivered the first victory of 2018 to Stewart-Haas Racing, teammate Clint Bowyer offered an intriguing analogy for why the organization had struggled with adapting to the lower-horsepower, high-downforce rules after enjoying its best season yet with the 2018 debut of the Mustang (all four SHR drivers won last year).
“The game’s changed – literally,” Bowyer said. “It would be like taking a baseball game and making the fence shorter and use a different bat and different ball size. The game has changed.
“You have to adjust to that game. When those rules change drastically the way they do, look at the timeframe of when it happened. You spend the better part of two years developing a Mustang for a certain game, and all of a sudden that game changes, and it’s, ‘Oh, we built that bat for that ball!’”
After Harvick’s win, SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said, “I don’t think anybody should think that we’re where we need to be.
“I think it’s been a humbling year for all of us, and I think it’s been a frustrating year, obviously after the Cinderella year that we had last year. Our stuff fired off really good the beginning of the year, and we honestly didn’t anticipate anything less than that this year. But you know, in sports that’s not always the case.”
Generational strife was a major theme of the weekend at New Hampshire, punctuated by the terse conversation between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.
But it also tied into Harvick’s notable quote that “if you drove like this 10 years ago, you’d have a fist in your mouth.” He meant the blocking and side-drafting necessitated by this season’s mostly full-throttle racing (which keeps cars more tightly bunched together).
A case could be made, though, that the shifting styles also have been borne of the new attitudes and philosophies from Millennial-age drivers and younger.
As Denny Hamlin told The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck, he sees the current era of aggressive driving beginning with Brad Keselowski, who drew the ire of many Cup veterans by refusing to yield during his first partial season in Cup 10 years ago and stayed true to being anti-establishment as the north star of his NASCAR career. When he won the championship in 2012, Keselowski was accused by Tony Stewart of “having a death wish” for racing Jimmie Johnson too hard at Texas Motor Speedway (which Keselowski recalled during this 2014 interview).
Between Keselowski and Joey Logano (see the 2015 playoffs and his 2018 win at Martinsville over Martin Truex Jr.), Team Penske’s longtime duo have done as much to reshape the mores of hard driving over the past decade – and it’s mostly been for the good.
Speaking of young drivers, kudos to the trio of early 20something Xfinity championship contenders who persistently field questions about their futures with a cheery attitude.
Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick still have no clarity on their rides for the 2020 season, and they will continue being asked about it (as they were last Friday at New Hampshire) until their plans are finalized.
It seems increasingly likely that all three of them will advance to Cup next season (“it would be a hell of a rookie battle,” Bell said). Based on the manner in which they have deftly handled speculation that can be annoying (at best) and distracting, Bell, Custer and Reddick seem ready for the leap.
Though he still might lack a Cup championship, Hamlin has his NASCAR peers beaten in another department: Candor.
It’s hard to imagine another modern-era driver second-guessing himself as much as Hamlin did while speaking to reporters for 10 minutes after New Hampshire in a richly detailed and insightful explanation of how he gave away the win to Harvick.
It was a fascinating window into the thought process of an elite driver, and it wasn’t the first time that Hamlin has been willing to be so forthright about a topic that another star might find too emotionally charged or personally humiliating to address (his breathtaking honesty about the No. 11 team giving the best pit stall to a teammate last year also comes to mind).
As much as the last-lap battle with Harvick was compelling, it also was Hamlin’s unflinching dissection that gave it major legs for Monday morning analysis – even if it came at his own expense.