When the caution flag waved 27 laps from the end of last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, crew chief Justin Alexander had a decision to make.
Austin Dillon was seventh. Pitting was the easy call — all the leaders came to pit road.
The key question was if to take two tires, four tires or no tires. Figuring a few of the leaders would take two tires, Alexander contemplated a quicker no-tire stop to pass those cars on pit road to gain track position.
In a command center 1,100 miles away at Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina, a different option was presented.
Pit for two tires. Specifically, pit for two left-side tires.
“The call was the win,” Dillon said after his third career Cup victory.
Many things had to happen — Dillon’s pit crew needed a fast stop and he had to hold off the field on multiple restarts — for Dillon to win, but the role the command center played was critical.
The sport’s top teams have places in their race shop dedicated for engineers and team officials to use to study in-race data and provide input for the crew chief at the track. Such centers have become more valuable this season with teams not practicing and qualifying before races, meaning a car’s first laps at speed are when the green flag waves. NASCAR announced this week that there will be no practice and no qualifying the rest of the season.
NBCSN’s Marty Snider will give fans an inside look at the RCR command center during tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App), showing what takes place and how the decisions there impact a race.
RCR’s command center, which was built about five years ago, has 10 stations for engineers and others to work and a wall-sized screen that can show various data about the RCR cars or any other car in the field along with the race broadcast. Computer programs also provide instant analysis of when to pit, how many tires to change and where each option is likely to put the car.
“Definitely the command center has helped,” said Alexander, who led the organization’s research and development and worked race days in the command center before reuniting as Dillon’s crew chief this season. “There’s more eyes on things than I can look at on my computer.”
With crew rosters limited, Alexander does not have either of his engineers with him at the the track. They work from RCR.
“As they feed me data, I can make better decisions,” Alexander said.
Dr. Eric Warren, RCR’s chief technology officer, spearheaded the effort to build the center. The technology has grown from analyzing timing and scoring to deciphering the car’s performance and strategies each team is likely to use in the race.
“The basic foundation of it is trying to learn what is the real performance of the car,” Warren told NBC Sports. “That way you are taking out things like weather, track position and laps on tires, all those things. As it gets more accurate in really understanding you’re an eighth-place car, then you can make those tradeoffs. If I take two tires and gain five seconds of track position, what’s my fall-off going to be and what’s my performance going to be?”
With such knowledge, teams can decide if such gambles are worth making.
Computer programs also study other teams and learn their tendencies and that can help plot strategy against.
Warren noted the key for Dillon came well before that last pit stop. Dillon had a four-tire stop on Lap 213 of the 334-lap race. That allowed the team to go with two-tire stops later since lap times did not significantly increase the longer the car ran on the same set of tires.
Dillon came in for a two-tire stop on Lap 245 under caution, a move that allowed him to go from 11th before the stop to eighth. The top six cars did not pit, meaning Dillon was second among those that had stopped.
A caution on Lap 307 when rookie Quin Houff made contact with Christopher Bell and Matt DiBenedetto trapped five of those six cars that had not pitted on Lap 245 a lap down, forcing them to take a wave around and not pit during that caution. That all but eliminated Ryan Blaney, who led 150 laps and pole-sitter Aric Almirola, among others.
“We knew, even an entire stop before, there were a lot of people that the way they did their pit strategy, they were going to be left exposed for a long period of time,” Warren said, noting Blaney, Almirola and others who pitted under green around Lap 290 and would remain a lap down until the rest of the field cycled through under green. “We actually altered our strategy way before those (late) cautions came out and kind of knew the likelihood of a caution happening (near Lap 307) was pretty high.”
That caution is when Dillon came in for two left-side tires, as the computer program suggested, and Reddick changed no tires, also as the program suggested. Dillon and Reddick went on to give RCR its first 1-2 finish in a Cup race since 2011.
“It’s starting to show that the speed of the cars are there,” Reddick told NBCSN’s Kyle Petty on this week’s Splash and Go. “Just taking advantage of some track position, taking advantage of some strategy calling played into our strengths, and it really showed that our cars had the speed on the older tires to be able to hold off the guys on four fresh tires.”
Warren also notes that while technology plays a key role in races, the human factor remains important.
“The relationship between the crew chief and the driver is critical because we might say 100% we definitely think you need to take right-side tires here,” Warren said. “The crew chief is going to know, even a little bit more than us, how far is the driver on the edge and maybe we’re not seeing a little damage on the car. My way of thinking about it has always been like we used to not have computers to do word processing, right? Well, now you have that and you can, so now you can spend time doing the next advanced thing. That’s the same with us.
“I don’t think the human element ever really is going to be replaced, at least not short term. I think it allows you to think about things more complex.”
Like winning races.