Of Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams, the strengths of the Greg Ives-led No. 48 group aren’t obvious. Among teams qualified for the playoffs, Alex Bowman, has the lowest Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranked 18th overall) and the car has the second-slowest median lap rank (12th best overall).
But Ives’ team regularly defies statistical expectation, having fashioned itself as a pit road stalwart. Its pit crew, ranking as the fourth fastest per median four-tire box time in 2020, ranked first in the same category through the first quarter of this season. It helped yield the biggest race-long net gains under yellow in Martinsville (+14) and Atlanta (+6) and the second biggest net in Las Vegas (+8).
As Ives points out, the mistake-free nature of the No. 48 team’s caution-flag stops allows the team to capitalize on the faults of others, gains dependent upon his competition’s adjustments and errors that elongate a box time.
“I think it’s consistency, not so much the home runs all the time,” Ives said. “It’s the fact that they’re consistent and consistent at a high level.
“It’s a big focus, just because there’s time to be had. Yes, performance on the racetrack, in the lap time, is definitely important, but when you have to pit eight to 10 times a week, maximizing that is definitely important.”
The team’s dominance under yellow extends to green-flag pit cycles, in which Ives has long been a shrewd strategist. The timing of each of stop, which may include short-pitting or long-pitting the most populated point in the cycle, dictates the bulk of the positional gain. A model student of the RhoAI strategy software that popularly fueled Austin Dillon’s victory in Texas last season, Ives presently ranks as the crew chief with the best position retention rate among cars averaging a top-30 running position:
Defending’s Bowman’s position at a series-best clip is a goal for Ives, the result of a deliberate focus on a portion of the race frequently overlooked by competitors.
“I kind of live by the fact that strategy and getting onto pit road and off of pit road as cleanly and as efficiently as possible is a great way to make up time and spots,” Ives said. “I spend a lot of time with the pit crew and the driver and even the engineers behind it to maximize points or positions.”
Some calls appear more ambitious than others, and there’s no guarantee his strategy won’t be interrupted by a caution flag. To wit, his shorting of the first green-flag pit cycle in Richmond backfired when Ryan Newman spun to bring out the yellow on lap 141. It dropped Bowman from fourth to 10th in the running order.
Ives’ subsequent calls netted nine positions across the race’s next three cycles. Bowman scored the win, and the playoff spot provided by a win, following a late pass on Denny Hamlin.
“There’s always anxiety when you short pit, there’s always anxiety if you run long. So, there’s always that anxiety,” Ives said. “If I get caught — a caution comes when I short-pit — I understand what it is we’re capable of doing to get out of it.”
This is a mentality that serves Ives well even when strategy wasn’t at fault for poor track position. One noticeable example of this was his decision to only take two tires following an hour-long rain delay in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, where tire wear was minimal. It not only pushed Bowman from 13th to first in the running order but also helped net two stage victories. Bowman finished 19th but landed the event’s fourth-biggest point tally.
Padding points, though, is only part of the yearlong battle. Bowman and Ives made a deep playoff run last season, eliminated in the cutoff race before the season finale.
A breakthrough past that point appears possible: Through the first nine races on non-drafting ovals, the team benefited from the driver’s elevated pass efficiency. In seven Cup seasons, this is the first time Bowman’s surplus passing value is far beyond the statistical expectation of a car with a similar average running whereabouts:
To this end, Bowman has created 53 spots on his own, a swing of 251 over last year’s net loss and a nifty addition to Ives’ 19-position contribution on non-drafting ovals. Such progression is necessary for legitimate title contention, as is improvement specifically at Martinsville and Phoenix, the two most prominent tracks on the playoff schedule.
At those 750-horsepower facilities, Ives saw improvement, but given the team’s median lap rankings — seventh at Martinsville and 18th at Phoenix — they’re not yet of an elite caliber that’s become the expectation of winners in the penultimate and final events of the season.
“At Phoenix, we struggled,” Ives said. “That’s been an issue for us. Same with Martinsville. We continuously haven’t had the best of finishes there — not bad obviously — but to contend as the champion did last year? He won both of those races.
“I feel like Phoenix this year, we had a good car, but not a car capable of winning. So, we definitely need to improve there if we want a chance or a battle at this year’s championship.”
Bowman finished 13th in Phoenix. At Martinsville, a vibration from what was believed to be a loose wheel forced him to pit under green, dropping him from third to 29th. He was later caught in a 12-car pileup on lap 386.
“Martinsville, I felt like we were in position at the end of the race,” Ives said. “Positioned as far as our strategy, positioned as far as the speed in the car and, ultimately, could’ve went out and outright won that race.”
Ives acknowledged the vibration Bowman felt was indeed the result of the prior tire change, a rare miscue from a tone-setting pit crew.
“You can get a little greedy,” Ives said. “You can cost yourself more time by speeding or getting on pit road and missing the commitment cone or having a mistake with the pit crew.”
Ives’ designs have the led the No. 48 team this far, to the playoffs for a fourth time in four seasons with Bowman as the driver, around whom he’s built a pit road juggernaut. It takes just one mistake for it all to unravel, a notion of which Ives is keenly aware.
Consistency, Ives believes, “comes from allowing all the people involved to work within their own strengths, work within their capabilities and not applying the pressure to say, ‘Hey, we need to continuously be better, but we don’t need to continuously jump past the line.’”