What matters in today’s race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):
A strategy sensitive track for those near the front
Chris Gabehart, though triumphant in his team’s victory, kicked himself.
Denny Hamlin scored the 2020 win at Homestead, thanks in part to the timing of Gabehart’s call to stop during the final green-flag run. But the crew chief felt he flew a bit too close to the sun, singeing wings by pitting a lap later than second-place Chase Elliott. On a tire-sensitive surface, Elliott overcame the on-track delta to Hamlin and leapfrogged him in the running order after one clean lap on fresh rubber.
Fortunately, Gabehart mitigated the loss of control by pitting immediately, the textbook fallback plan. Hamlin received four tires himself, cycled out close to Elliott and made the go-ahead pass with 30 laps remaining.
“Yeah, in hindsight, I certainly wished I (had) set the tone,” Gabehart said. “I had made up my mind that I was going to try to react to (Elliott) because I thought I could get Denny on pit road the same lap. I just couldn’t. As quickly as I reacted, it turns out 180 miles an hour is faster than I can listen, push a button and talk. Alan (Gustafson, Elliott’s crew chief) did a really good job. I missed it by a second.
“Had I been able to get on the button a second sooner, we could have been down (pit road). It cost us a little bit of time. Luckily, our car was good enough and Denny was good enough on the long run that we had everything we needed.”
The heartburn over one lap is a testament to the Homestead track, itself a near-perfect oval accentuating speed, strategy and driving technique while throwing in enough lap-time falloff on worn tires to create wiggle room and panic. Hamlin, for one, recognized the speed of Elliott’s car and understood what a deficit created by a mistimed green-flag stop meant.
“It seems like the end of these races are Chase’s best suit,” Hamlin said. “He was able to short pit us there. I wasn’t able to come to pit road, I kind of missed pit road there and he was able to get us on that cycle. I just knew if I ran the pace I knew I needed to save the tires that I was going to be good in the long run.”
Gabehart’s immediate response to Elliott’s stop probably saved the race for Hamlin. Had he pitted a lap or two later, Elliott would’ve distanced himself more in clean air and Hamlin’s winning pass may not have occurred.
This situation perfectly encapsulates the plight of crew chiefs when pitting under green from the front of the field.
Across the entirety of the field, NASCAR Cup Series teams retained their positioning last year on green-flag pit cycles 64.2% of the time. That rate shrunk to 40.4% among teams relinquishing top-five spots. Gabehart was one of the best strategists in the series for defending his driver’s front-running whereabouts, successfully retaining Hamlin’s top-five positioning on 57.9% of qualified pit cycles:
It stands to reason that defending lead positions is a delicate dance; after all, these are the positions most coveted in the running order. But crew chiefs for typical frontrunners tend to skew conservative on stops, both in the timing of the stop and the kind of stop — four tires, two tires or fuel only — despite track characteristics that may force one mathematically obvious answer. At Homestead, tire wear is a massive hindrance to handling, so much so that short-pitting and ripping of clean lap times on fresh rubber provides a quantifiable advantage. To long-pit on a track like Homestead is to gamble for a caution, but is also a risk made worse with every passing lap, when the competition is beginning its run on fresh tires.
Unless some crew chiefs change their habits — and that’s entirely possible — the ones who routinely work green-flag pit cycles to their advantage should fare well. Those on the opposite end of the spreadsheet may prove themselves as liabilities for their respective teams.
The need for speed … and style
Hamlin’s unorthodox driving style and the rim-riding styles of others have been popular subjects this week. It’s with good reason: Homestead is a rare 1.5-mile track where throttle mastery matters in the corners.
In reviewing throttle traces from last year’s race, the fastest drivers experienced a minimum throttle threshold of 40-50% and given the magnitude of how tires wear — leading to a lap-time falloff of around two seconds in some cases — some of them found themselves completely off of the throttle toward the end of runs.
Driving style and speed create a powerful blend. Hamlin had the fastest car in last year’s Homestead race, but his style — he rolls deeper into the corners with more throttle and no brake pressure, relative to others — allowed Gabehart some flexibility in setup, a luxury other crew chiefs didn’t have, including his stable mates at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“Yeah, it definitely is different,” Gabehart admitted. “He’s able to get speed out of a car in ways that his data traces may not suggest he’s getting speed out of it, specifically at these style tracks.”
The driver informs the speed of the car, but the car’s foundational setup is equally important. To wit, rookie Tyler Reddick was a standout at Homestead in 2020 utilizing a high line taught to him by Kyle Larson. But Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing car also ranked as the second fastest in the race per timing and scoring data. Reddick helped make a fast machine faster, sure, but the car pulled its share of the weight, an inarguable need for this specific track.
Despite the random nature of results last season on 1.5-mile tracks — Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon won at Charlotte, Las Vegas and Texas, respectively, with cars ranked 10th, 13th and 15th in speed for those individual races — Homestead’s event saw a correlation coefficient of +0.9, nearly perfect, between speed ranking and finishing position. Indeed, speed always matters, but its relevance towards the finish was pronounced compared to other facilities utilizing the 550-hp package.
The impact of the choose zone
The choose zone awakens from a three-month slumber today to help influence Homestead’s restarts, though its impact is up in the air, doubted this week by Hamlin.
“It will mean a little less at Homestead, but that being said, it will still be significant,” he said. “It’s a great addition to the strategic part of making decisions on what you are going to do in these races. I like that element. It’s fun, but it will be important on the last restart if we have a green-white-checkered, but outside of five laps to go it won’t be too much of a detriment either way.”
Driving him to this opinion is an atypical restart dynamic: Homestead’s inside groove was statistically stronger in last year’s race, but the preference flipped to the outside, beginning with the third row. The outside of the third row, traditionally the sixth-place position, successfully retained position 90.9% of the time across the last two Homestead races. Its occupants average a running position of 5.09 after two laps, better than the average for those in the fifth-place spot (5.36):
The fourth row saw the biggest gap between its occupants: Those in the inside (seventh place) retained position on just 18.2% of attempts, while those originating from the outside (eighth place) retained 81.8% of the time, averaging a running position (7.18) over 1.25 positions better than their counterparts (8.45).
Homestead’s restart dynamic may indeed offer enough flexibility as to accentuate the skill of NASCAR’s top restarters, but the choices offered to competitors aren’t entirely obvious. A wrong choice could result in a statistical disadvantage, certainly hindering an ensuing green-flag run.