Best of Gen 6: Acknowledging the era’s best pit strategists

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From the start of the 2013 season to the close of last month’s finale in Phoenix, the NASCAR Cup Series experienced the era of the Gen 6 car. With this chapter of stock car racing at its bittersweet end — and a new one beginning with the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022 — NBC Sports is spending this month looking back on the best individual performances across the last nine years.

What makes a good pit strategist?

It’s natural that we recall the moments in which perceived gambles succeeded or failed, but the entirety of a crew chief’s strategy outlay — the bigger sample size — is how we should discern whether a strategist was one of the best across the Gen 6 era.

Recorded by Motorsports Analytics, each crew chief holds a position retention rate, or more informally, the rate in which his team defended positions during green-flag pit cycles. These stops under green are vulnerable moments that feature more positional changes than caution-flag stops. They also allow the crew chief a choice on the timing of said stop within the pit window. And some, as you’ll read, are far better at timing stops than others.

While retention and positional gains are easier to obtain the deeper in the field you go — there’s less to lose, after all — crew chiefs near the front of the field aim to join what we’ll refer to as the “60/60 club,” noting 60% retention when pitting under green and 60% retention when pitting under green after relinquishing a top-five spot, where the series average is annually around 50%.

The 60/60 mark was hit 27 times in the last nine years by 15 different crew chiefs. Four of them were included among our best six of the Gen 6 era:

Cole Pearn

Pearn might’ve been the best crew chief, full stop, of the Gen 6 era. He was certainly the only four-time member of the 60/60 club, proof that his skills as a strategist were on par with his ability to conjure speed from a race car.

Each season from 2016-19, Pearn defended the running position of Martin Truex Jr. on over 60% of green-flag pit cycles while also boasting at least a 60% retention rate when relinquishing a top-five spot. Note that this four-year span began before the implementation of stages, suggesting Pearn was a stout defender of his driver’s track position regardless of points implications.

But stage racing yielded to Pearn immediate dividends for successfully protecting front-running spots. In 2017, the first year in which points were awarded for stage finishes, Truex won 18 of a possible 53 stages during the regular season. Bonus points from those stage wins helped build a 20-point buffer at the start of the playoffs, the biggest such gap of the stage racing era until Kyle Larson’s 28-point cushion this year.

Greg Ives

It’s hard enough for a crew chief like Pearn, who routinely had one of the fastest cars in the Cup Series at his disposal, to keep hold of positions near the front of the field. Lacking that elite speed hangs a higher degree of difficulty on the task. That’s what makes Ives’ performance during the Gen 6 era so impressive.

While the Hendrick Motorsports crew chief made it into the 60/60 club in each of his last three seasons calling races on behalf of Alex Bowman, his team’s year-end speed rankings from 2019-21 were 15th, ninth and 10th.

The timing and output from those green-flag pit stops were cumulatively good. But in isolation, Ives’ best efforts were common denominators in Bowman’s best results, including this season’s wins at Richmond (nine positions earned from the race’s final three green-flag pit cycles) and Pocono (6 positions earned across two cycles).

Adam Stevens

The inclusion of Stevens on this list might be tough for some Kyle Busch fans to swallow, specifically because the crew chief’s misses — like Phoenix in 2018 and last year’s race on the Roval — are instantly memorable, more so than his hits. But the two-time title-winner landed in the 60/60 club three times during the Gen 6 era, with his latest serving as a redemption for his worst season.

Joe Gibbs Racing separated Stevens and Busch after a 2020 campaign that brought just one win — coming after they’d already been eliminated from title contention — and a 43.75% retention of top-five running positions, the worst mark of Stevens’ career, coinciding with a year in which races were heavily decided by pit strategy. This season, on behalf of Christopher Bell, his output returned to normal, keeping hold of his driver’s top spots 60% of the time while proving Busch’s perennially strong pit-in/pit-out times weren’t the only factor in the team’s steady performance on green-flag pit stops.

Chad Johnston

Before the 2020 season, Johnston was one of the best position defenders on pit road, working on behalf of Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing and finishing three years — 2017-19 — at our 60/60 benchmark. The 2017 season served as his high-water effort, with an overall retention rate of 78.57% that yielded an additional 51 positions on the racetrack. Coupled with Larson’s own passing ability, this was a team deep on offense but lacking in speed.

But the 2020 season brought a host of problems to CGR’s No. 42 team, with the crew chief’s output being one of them. On behalf of Larson and Matt Kenseth, Johnston retained position on just 50% of green-flag pit cycles, losing a combined 86 positions on the track. He lost his job later that year.

Despite how his tenure ended, Johnston did prove valuable for the majority of the Gen 6 era, a feat deserving of recognition based on the totality of his strategy-based gains.

Chris Gabehart

Gabehart never made it into the 60/60 club, but in all three years as Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, his was the first name on the list of those who just missed out, turning in overall and top-five position retention rates of 67% and 59% in 2019, 64% and 58% in 2020 and 59% and 57% this season.

In addition to his body of work, he delivered big moments in isolation: He earned Hamlin 11 spots on the final three green-flag pit cycles en route to a win at Texas in 2019; a two-tire call later that year in Phoenix helped clinch Hamlin a win and a Championship 4 spot; and his decision to long-pit the final stage this year at Darlington resulted in a Southern 500 victory.

Trent Owens

Owens, on behalf of Richard Petty Motorsports and then JTG Daugherty Racing, pitted under green from a top-five spot just once since 2014. But despite the lack of track position during these pit cycles, he habitually made a positive impact for drivers like Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ryan Preece.

From 2014-21, Owens’ calls under green contributed to a 442-position gain on the racetrack, the highest net of any other crew chief across the time period. From 2017-18 specifically, he earned 240 spots while submitting retention rates as high as 82.61% on behalf of Buescher and 77.47% across the two seasons combined.

BJ McLeod, Live Fast team move to Chevrolet

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Driver/owner BJ McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports will race in Chevrolets beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Live Fast has been a Ford team.

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Live Fast is owned by McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk. Jessica McLeod, BJ’s wife, is the team’s chief operating officer.

“Our team is excited to make this transition to Chevrolet,” BJ McLeod said in a statement released by the team. “Chevrolet Camaros have proven great success on the track, and Live Fast Motorsports is looking forward to becoming a part of this advance.”

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The team will use ECR engines.

McLeod had one top-10 finish in 29 starts in the Cup Series last season.

Dr Diandra: Delving deeper into 2022 NASCAR season statistics

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As I discovered earlier this year, cautions don’t capture everything. Sometimes drivers spin, crash, lose wheels or blow tires, but racing continues. Cautions are inaccurate proxies for counting these incidents.

Improving accuracy requires re-visiting each race in detail to find those incidents that didn’t produce cautions.

So that’s what I did.

Non-caution incidents

I use the same categories for non-caution incidents as for cautions. Only incidents significant enough to cost drivers spots count, regardless of where in the field they happen. I don’t claim to have found every incident, but I think I caught most of them.

The table below summarizes my counts for caution and non-caution incidents in the 2022 Cup Series.

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Non-caution incidents comprise 30.1% of total incidents. The percentages, however, vary widely within categories.

For example: While non-caution accidents are just 14% of all accidents, non-caution spins are almost 40% of the total spin count.

Non-caution incidents by race

The graph below shows total incidents — caution and non-caution. I show the races in chronological order from left to right. The totals do not include planned cautions.

The largest number of non-caution incidents happen at road courses. These tracks’ length and sprawling nature allow drivers to recover from a spin or accident without drawing a caution.

  • The Indy road course had the highest overall number of non-caution incidents — nine spins, six accidents and one car on fire. That comes to a total of 16 non-caution incidents and three natural cautions.
  • COTA had the second-highest total of non-caution incidents with 13 — two accidents, nine spins, one tire issue and one wheel issue. Seven natural cautions bring COTA’s incident total to 20.
  • Bristol’s asphalt race came in third in total incidents. Although all of the accidents, spins and stalls recorded there caused cautions, six tire issues and five wheel issues did not. Bristol wins the award for most non-caution incidents at an oval.

Road courses accounted for one-third of all spins in 2022. Capturing total spins is important because spins indicate how easy it is to lose control of the car.

The first third of the season tallied 34 spins. The number rose to 40 in the second third, but fell to 25 in the last 12 races of the year. The numbers from the first two-thirds of the season included 10 spins each at COTA and the Indy Road Course.

The strong dependence of spins on track type makes it hard to draw a conclusion about whether drivers improved their ability to manage the car during the year.

Tires blown

The Next Gen’s symmetry makes the car harder to turn, which demands more from the tires. Crew chiefs also gained the ability to adjust rear camber. Goodyear reported force spikes of 200 to 300 pounds in the tires. Force spikes load a tire quickly, which can lead to blowouts.

I only counted situations in which it was clear that the tire went flat before any other incident, like a spin or accident. If it was possible that another incident caused the tire to blow, I didn’t include it as a tire issue.

I counted a total of 59 blown tires in the 2022 season, which includes those that caused cautions and those that didn’t.

Teams used around 26,600 tires this season. The 59 tire failures represent about 0.2% of all tires run.

Christopher Bell and Austin Cindric had the most blown tires with five each. Bell’s teammate Martin Truex Jr. had four. Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe and Daniel Suarez each had three.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s four cars totaled 13 blown tires or 22% of the total number. Hendrick Motorsports, with the same number of cars, had eight blown tires, while Stewart Haas Racing had only six.

The Bristol asphalt race had the most tire issues, with 13. Texas came in second with eight and Kansas third with five. Atlanta, which was repaved and reconfigured, had six tire issues across its two races.

The number of tire issues at Kansas decreased from five in the first race to two in the second. I expect the overall numbers to go down next year as crew chiefs use what they’ve learned this year to refine their setups.

Wheels lost

The Next Gen’s single-lug wheel challenged pit crews, despite built-in indicators that confirm when a wheel is properly tightened. I counted 13 times cars had to back up on pit road to deal with a loose wheel and 19 times cars pitted right after a tire change to re-tighten wheels.

The four-race suspension for crew chief and pit crew members makes teams extra cautious.

I counted 14 wheels coming off cars during the 2022 season. Seven merited cautions. The remaining seven either happened on pit road, or a car that lost a wheel on track was able to make it back to pit road.

Fourteen wheels is 0.05% of all tires used. Again, this number reflects human error more than any design flaw in the wheels. More concerning to me are the handful of stops where teams couldn’t get wheels off cars. For example, debris between the wheel and hub at Darlington ended up costing Ross Chastain four laps.

The good news is that fewer wheels left cars as the season went on.

  • Eight wheels came off cars in the first third of the season.
  • Four wheels were lost in the second third of the season.
  • Only two wheels failed to stay on in the final third of the season.

As is the case for most statistics in the first year of a new car, these numbers will become more meaningful next year, when they’ll serve as benchmarks.

Goodyear renews agreement to remain NASCAR tire supplier

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NASCAR and Goodyear have entered into a new multi-year agreement maintaining Goodyear’s role as the exclusive tire for NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Goodyear also will be the title sponsor for the Cup race at Darlington Raceway in May 2023. Goodyear and NASCAR’s relationship dates back nearly 70 years and is one of the longest-running affiliations in any sport.

“From our manufacturing plants to offices around the world, racing is ingrained in our culture, and the importance of our relationship with NASCAR is reflected in the quality, performance and engineering we put into every Goodyear Eagle race tire,” said Richard J. Kramer, chairman, chief executive officer and president at Goodyear, in a statement. “Our performance on the racetrack plays an active role in the success of the sport and inspires the development of our consumer tires, fueling our commitment to take performance and innovation to the next level.”

Goodyear produces more than 100,000 tires for NASCAR’s top three series each year at Goodyear’s global headquarters in Akron, Ohio.

“Goodyear has been a trusted partner to the NASCAR industry since 1954, playing a critical role in our shared pursuit to deliver the best racing in the world,” said Steve Phelps, president of NASCAR, in a statement. “For more than 25 years, Goodyear Eagle tires have been the only component that connects the stock car to the racetrack. Our continued partnership will allow us to push boundaries and innovate our racing product for generations to come.”  

Jes Ferreira selected as Comcast Community Champion of the Year

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Comcast announced Jes Ferreira as the 2022 Comcast Community Champion of the Year Award, the eighth to receive the annual award. Among all the turmoil of the pandemic, Ferreira looked for an opportunity to give back. Despite her heavy workload, she decided to take on an even heavier challenge, becoming a foster parent to two young girls. 

“I am overwhelmed, humbled, and blown away to be recognized as the Comcast Community Champion of the Year,” said Jes Ferreira, 2022 Comcast Community Champion, “the amount of support this will provide for the Charlotte foster families ensures the best services for these children. I hope this sheds light on the foster community and encourages everyone to support in many different ways.” 

Ferreira, originally earned a foster license to become a foster parent for one child, but a few months later, the child’s younger sibling needed a new foster home. Although Ferreira, Senior Director of Live Shows for CSM Production, already had a crazy work schedule which included traveling to the race track most weekends on top of fostering one child as a single parent, she knew without a doubt these two siblings deserved to be together while in foster care. Now two young siblings who are going through the most trying time in their lives have been reunited thanks to Ferreira. 

On any given day, there are nearly 424,000 children in foster care in the United States. In 2019, over 672,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care. On average, children remain in state care for over a year and a half, and five percent of children in foster care have languished there for five or more years.  

Ferreira’s affiliated charity is Foster Village Charlotte (FVC), an organization that allows foster parents to connect with and support each other. FVC collaborates with 16 private foster parent licensing agencies, local government, child welfare organizations and the community to serve families holistically and represent the foster family voice to Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services (DSS). 

To further honor Jes’ incredible dedication, Comcast will donate $60,000 to Foster Village Charlotte (FVC).

“Jes encompasses everything the Comcast Community Champion of the Year stands for. Anyone that is at the track knows how dedicated Jes is to the sport of NASCAR and, we are so glad we expanded the eligibility for this award so we can uncover and honor the compassion, selflessness and generosity Jes provides off the track, and that is what makes this honor so special, ” said Matt Lederer, Comcast’s Vice President, Brand Partnerships and Amplification.  

 Ferreira, was chosen by a panel comprised of Comcast and NASCAR executives, as well as Curtis Francois, the 2021 Comcast Community Champion, who received the award for his work with the Raceway Gives Foundation 

For the first time, Comcast opened the eligibility for anyone in the NASCAR community with a 2022 annual credential or NASCAR full season license, and with this expansion, Comcast is now able to share these exceptional stories.   

Josh Williams, driver of the #92 DGM Racing car for the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Sherry Pollex, founder of Sherry Strong, were selected as finalists and will be awarded $30,000 each towards their respective selected charities – the Ryan Seacrest Foundation and Sherry Strong. 

Comcast has a long track record of community service, aiding in the advancement of local organizations, developing programs and partnerships, mobilizing resources to connect people and inspiring positive and substantive change. To learn more about these efforts, visit the Comcast Community Impact site. 

About Comcast Corporation’s Partnership with NASCAR 

Comcast’s Xfinity brand entered NASCAR as entitlement partner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2015 and is now Premier Partner of the NASCAR Cup Series. Since then, the company has donated $840,000 to more than 20 different NASCAR-affiliated organizations to honor their efforts and to help further the impact of their worthy causes. Fans can visit ComcastCommunityChampion.com to learn more about past and present finalists and their acts of selflessness.