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.
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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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.