Friday 5: NASCAR Cup pit crews set for busy offseason with changes for 2022

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In the 14 years pit crew coach Ray Wright has been at Richard Childress Racing, he’s seen NASCAR cut the over-the-wall pit crew from seven to six and then to five people.

But those changes don’t compare to what is in store for next season. The wheels will have one lug nut instead of five. While that seems minor, it will impact pit stops in significant ways. 

“Every change seems major at the time, but this is change to everything,” Wright said.

He went on to add “This is the first time we’ve had so many unknowns.”

So, how can going from five lug nuts to one on a wheel be such a big deal?

Wright notes how the change alters the characteristics of the pit stop. Previously, the key for any pit crew was finding tire changers who could remove five lug nuts in less than a second.

“We’re having them off in .9s and .8s, and man, that made everything,” he said. “The whole pit stop was about the lug nuts.”

Now, Wright notes, a key element with the pit stop will be about the jackman. A key for the jackman before was to get a nice stroke so the car rose smoothly. That was important so the tire changers could hit a lug nut as the car was going up.

“Now, we don’t need that with one lug,” Wright said. “It’s just blast that thing up and that’s a major difference.”

The tire changers also have much to adjust to with the single lug nut.

First, they have a different air gun. One that is 2 pounds heavier than the previous air gun, estimates Chase Masterson, front tire changer for Tyler Reddick in Cup and Myatt Snider in Xfinity this past season.

“Even from our previous gun that we had to the Paoli gun (used by all teams) you are talking about 1/2- to 3/4-pound (difference), and we thought that was the end of the world,” Masterson said.

Another nuance is that tire changers would trigger their air guns as they got into position to ensure it reached maximum RPMs to remove the lug nuts immediately.

“Now if we do it (crank the gun before engaging the single lug), it’s not going to lock up on the wheel,” Wright said. “It’s just going to throw out a bunch of sparks. It’s just going to spin. So you’ve got to engage it and then you turn (it on).”

Wright said that, eventually, the pit stops will be faster. He notes how Kyle Larson had an 11.8-second pit stop to get the lead on the final stop in the season finale at Phoenix to win the championship.

“I think by October of 2022 an 11.8 is probably going to lose you spots,” Wright said. “Eleven-eight in Daytona (in February) might be OK.”

He noted that his team performed a 10.5-second stop, which featured only simulated fueling, during last week’s Next Gen test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Give it a year or give it two years, and you’ll see them in the 9s,” Masterson said on the possibility of sub-10-second pit stops for four tires. “We’ll figure it out. That’s what we do.”

To get to that point will take work. That will make this a busy time for pit crews as they prepare for a new way to do Cup pit stops.

“We’ll have a good Thanksgiving, and then we’ll come back and it will be reps city,” Wright said, alluding to plenty of practice for his pit crews.

2. A new approach

Even before 23XI Racing ran its first race this season, competition director Mike Wheeler looked at ways to do things differently when the organization expanded.

He’s putting those plans in place with the team adding Kurt Busch as a teammate to Bubba Wallace.

Team co-owner Denny Hamlin said earlier this year that the organization was looking to be set up more similarly to a Formula 1 team. Wheeler said he talked to “top-five teams, organizations” in Formula 1 and IndyCar via Zoom calls to learn how they structure their teams. He declined to reveal which teams.

“I talked to people last January about this, knowing that Gen-7 was coming,” Wheeler told NBC Sports. “How F1 teams go have two teams. They work together, yet they have one core group on the station on pit lane calling the race.

“In practice, everyone has their own ideas, but they have a boss and one of them is a senior race engineer, who says ‘You are going to change the camber, and you are going to change toe, and you’re going to report back to us what it does.’ Everyone knows where everyone’s setup is supposed to start. Everyone knows where they’re headed for setup.”

The conversations with teams in other series showed Wheeler that he was headed in the right direction with this concept.

“I found a few guys to talk and they said they studied the NASCAR system and was like they don’t think it’s better,” Wheeler said. “They saw the same holes that I have been seeing. It just gave me confirmation that I cannot be scared to chase it.”

NASCAR Cup Series Test
The addition of a second team has allowed 23XI Racing to alter its internal structure, mirroring, in some ways, what Formula 1 teams do. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Wheeler also credited Steve Lauletta, the team’s president. Lauletta had previously been an executive at Chip Ganassi Racing and saw how that organization’s NASCAR and IndyCar teams operated.

“I think this is an efficient way to go,” Wheeler said. “We’re not duplicating work. That’s one of the biggest things is I’m trying to get rid of personal preferences and pick a path to go down.

“I don’t want to limit creativity. We’re allowed to do setups that we want to do, but I want to make sure that (crew chief Billy Scott) is one of the guys on both side of the fence and not going ‘I don’t know what they are doing, but I’ll find out why they are faster than me on Monday.’ That’s not really a good way to learn.”

With a single-car team this year, Wheeler didn’t have the luxury he has now. He also was the crew chief for Wallace much of the year. Wheeler’s time was divided between work for the next race and looking further ahead for the team. With Bootie Barker now Wallace’s crew chief, Wheeler can focus on bigger picture items, such as the team’s structure.

“We’re basically going to have the guys that assemble the 23 cars are going to assemble the 45 cars as well,” Wheeler said. “Everyone reports to a common person and not a team number person. Once they go to the racetrack, Billy (Scott, crew chief for Busch) is going to be with his group and they’re going to execute the weekend for the 45 car. Bootie is going to go over to the 23 group and execute the weekend with that car.

“I’m not going to have those guys worry about trivia things. I have managers in the shop doing that kind of stuff. They’re going to be worrying about car performance, educating the crew and execution.”

To help with that, the team recently added several people. Among the new hires was Dave Rogers, who won the Xfinity championship as crew chief for Daniel Hemric.

“The idea with Dave, he’s one of those guys that are available and you need good people,” Wheeler said. “We call him the performance director. He’ll be a lot with the engineering side of it, not necessarily setups but the core group, whether it be aero or strategy or some other development.

“Right now, we have a good alliance with (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Toyota, but we’ve still to use it to the fullest advantage while making our own better. Dave is one those guys with a unique talent in the garage area, highly respected and experienced that we can put him to use and help develop our program as a whole.”

3. More work to do

Cup teams will return to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s oval to test the Next Gen car Dec. 15 and 17. The two-day test there earlier this month showed more work was needed on the 1.5-mile track with the new car.

One of the issues that came up in the test was how much slower the Next Gen cars were compared to the times run on the Charlotte oval in May with the previous car. While a variety of factors played a role, including drivers working their way to be comfortable in the new car, it did raise the issue of how important speed is.

Former champion Chase Elliott says he noticed a difference.

“I definitely feel like you are going a little slower down the straightaway,” he said at last week’s test. “But once you kind of land in the corner itself, I don’t know that it feels a ton different, maybe a little bit.

“Certainly, I feel like the biggest difference, just from a momentum standpoint that I felt, was just the tire falloff. I could really hear and feel how much I slowed down from the beginning of a 20-lap run to the end. That was probably the biggest thing to that stood out to me. But that’s going to change track to track.”

As for the speed differential and if it’s an issue, Elliott wasn’t sure.

“If it’s entertaining and it’s exciting and we’re able to put on a good race, like, who cares, really, how fast we’re going at the end of the day,” Elliott said. “But, if the racing is no better and if we take a step backwards in our product on our track, then I don’t think we should be going slower.”

4. New look

Moving the car number forward from the door is meant to give sponsors a larger space to use. The recent Next Gen tests on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and oval gave a glimpse of how the space could be used.

Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team, said the company has had positive responses from its sponsors on the change and what it can allow them to do on the car.

“This year has been, I think, particularly energizing because there are so many new aspects of this,” Newmark said. “By moving the number, that gives you the ability to do a lot more with the paint scheme … than you could before.”

The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing car the team used at the Next Gen test shows how the area on the side can be used for sponsors. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Newmark also noted that with more space on the side of the car, there’s a little less space for other sponsors in other areas.

“This may not be apparent to the average fan, the lower rear quarter panel is way smaller than it used to be, so now you have to look at where’s other spaces we can showcase an associate sponsor,” he said. “There’s been some difficulties with it, but for the most part it’s been a huge positive. The partners have loved it. It gives them, I don’t want to say a blank canvas, but a different canvas to paint on. I think you are going to see some pretty cool paint schemes coming out next year.”

Newmark also noted that not all companies would use all the space available to them.

“Some brands like the minimalist approach, and … there are others that want to be loud and bold and use every space on the car,” he said. “A lot of those will depend on the sponsors. I’ll bet you’ll see some really creative paint schemes out there because this allows for more creativity than we have had before.”

5. Road warriors

With seven road course events on the Cup schedule this past season, there was talk about how many of those races Chase Elliott would win and who could challenge him.

Both of Elliott’s wins this season came on road courses. He won at Circuit of the Americas in May and at Road America in July. Teammate Kyle Larson won a series-high three races on road courses.

Elliott and Larson each finished in the top five in five of the seven road courses. Elliott, Larson, Denny Hamlin (four top fives), Kyle Busch (three) and Joey Logano (three) combined to score 57.1% of the top fives on all the Cup road course events in 2021.

Tyler Reddick won three stages on the road courses, most in Cup. Elliott, Larson, Logano and Busch each won two stages.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.