With seven winners through the first seven Cup Series races, the unexpected parity is affecting those on the playoff fringes. The need for wins, and the automatic playoff berths that come with them, is forcing riskier-than-usual pit strategy and more calculated approaches toward unlikely success.
Mike Wheeler’s decision to keep Bubba Wallace out on 7-lap-old tires for Phoenix’s Lap 269 restart was a polarizing call that ultimately proved bad — Wallace rapidly fell down the running order after initially losing three spots within the first two laps. After the race, Wheeler’s Twitter mentions exploded, so much so, he felt the need to explain himself:
Why we stayed out: 7 laps on tires, newest of anyone. P10 of 22 cars on the lead lap. Earlier in race with similar position, it was split who pitted vs stayed. And no one on tires drove to the lead. We were on the same page to stay. It didn't work out. And yes my head hurts.
— Michael Wheeler (@MikeCWheeler) March 14, 2021
There was a sound underlying logic to Wheeler’s actions. Despite Wallace building track position — he earned a single-race pass differential 5.57 positions better than his statistical expectation — he still lacked the speed necessary for securing front-running spots. His Toyota Camry ranked as the 19th fastest in median lap time, meaning a pit call exactly like this one was the most realistic pathway to clean air, an ingredient that allowed the likes of Joey Logano to build a 4.5-second lead before hitting heavy lapped traffic that day.
The plan clearly didn’t work, but it was reflective of the kind of all-or-nothing decision-making we should expect from teams on the periphery of the top 16.
A consistent path towards the playoffs might no longer hack it
In 2019, Ryan Newman and crew chief Scott Graves produced the blueprint for relative lightweights in terms of speed — Newman’s car ranked as the 22nd fastest during the regular season — to make the playoffs in a consistent, traditional fashion.
Newman crashed just three times during the first 26 races, while Graves gamed green-flag pit cycles toward the end of stages to secure 41 additional positions on the racetrack and 11 points. Those extra points came in handy: Newman edged Daniel Suárez by four points for the final playoff spot.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Newman’s Roush Fenway Racing stablemate at the time, took notice of the consistency, constructing this season’s focus with JTG Daugherty Racing around what worked two years ago.
“We really focused on just being more consistent week in and week out,” said Stenhouse, who finished second in last Monday’s race in Bristol. “That’s starting with me, the things I do behind the wheel, the things I do off the racetrack, preparing going into the weekend, just getting that mindset going into each race that it’s one race at a time.”
Stenhouse’s approach is paying dividends. He accumulated the 11th-most points across the last five races, and currently ranks 14th in the standings, above the playoff cutoff with the 20th-fastest car. But his is a plan diminished in impact with every new race winner.
Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win compressed the number of available playoffs spots after Day 1 of the regular season. Wins by Christopher Bell and William Byron compounded the issue shortly thereafter. It’s not surprising to see cars from Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports qualify for the playoffs, but these particular teams were unexpected winners, originally thought to be in a point-padding battle for the final few playoff slots.
While the usual championship contenders aren’t sweating the pressure — the likes of Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick are each winless but still have 19 realistic chances at victory before the end of the regular season — those unlikely to win have been forced to pivot.
“For me, the playoffs is still the goal,” said Erik Jones, ranked 22nd in points with the 26th-fastest car. “Obviously, it’s getting tougher by the weekend. We’ve had seven different winners now in seven races, so we’re working our way pretty quickly to that 16-winner mark, which would be tough to make the playoffs, obviously, without a win at that point.
“You’ll have to have one.”
How will shock wins originate?
For the most part, unique winners tend to emerge from three specific scenarios.
The first opportunity is a late pit call, either to stay out or take just two tires. Similar to how Austin Dillon snuck in a victory against the lead pack last summer in Texas, tracks with little lap-time degradation on worn tires are ripe for these situations.
Goodyear nipped this particular call in the bud with the introduction of a universal tire combination for the majority of 1.5-mile tracks that saw falloff eclipse 1.2 seconds as recently as the Las Vegas race. But the scenario may present itself elsewhere, as early as Martinsville, where the falloff on worn tires was a half-second in most cases last fall.
The second opportunity manifests when hitting on a caution flag after a long-pitting attempt for that precise outcome.
Whereas the short-pitting tactic is a deliberate call for incremental gains, the long-pit is a shot in the dark for a bounty of spots. This year, we’ve seen exaggerated long-pit attempts from crew chiefs Travis Mack (on behalf of Suárez), Ryan Sparks (for Corey LaJoie) and Seth Barbour (for Anthony Alfredo), but given the teams, they were understandable, albeit long-shot gambles.
Teams with consistent mid-pack speed, like those of Wallace, Stenhouse and Jones, could view this as a best practice, especially in races where they lack track position.
The third and final opportunity is the least cost-effective of the trio: Go all in, for just one race.
Hindsight will tell us whether this has already happened with Byron’s flag-to-flag whipping of the field in Homestead despite statistical signs suggesting it wasn’t an aberration. But it stands to reason that a deliberate focus on one event in hopes of scoring an outlier result could work.
That’s what Richard Petty Motorsports attempted with Wallace in 2019, pouring resources into the team’s Indianapolis car in a fashion unsustainable for the small team for all other races. Their Chevrolet ranked as the 13th-fastest car in the race; Wallace finished third.
The shift away from large facilities and toward shorter tracks and road courses makes additional research and development on the 2-mile tracks a poor use of resources for those with realistic championship aspirations. This conceivably clears room for teams with mid-pack speed to upgrade their engine packages for a single race or allocate their limited hours of wind tunnel time in pursuit of one win at either Pocono or Michigan while faster teams are occupied with loftier goals.
Even though playoff qualification is only realistic to a select few, it’s equally lucrative. With seven spots already settled, teams on the fringes might soon eschew holistic consistency for a win-or-bust mentality.