Friday 5: Joe Gibbs Racing looks to revolutionize pit stops

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s not uncommon for teams to make changes to their pit crews before the start of a season, but Joe Gibbs Racing seems to have gone to an extreme.

It’s as if the organization wrote every pit crew member’s name on a sheet of paper, threw those papers in the air, and wherever the names landed, that became the pit crew for Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell and 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace.

Only four of 20 pit crew members are on the same Joe Gibbs Racing team heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500 as they were in last year’s season finale at Phoenix. To compare, Hendrick Motorsports has only one pit crew change from the lineups it had at Phoenix last year to Daytona this season among its four teams. 

JGR’s change comes as the Next Gen car transforms the sport, including pit road. The tires have a center lug nut instead of five lugs and that’s changed the thinking, at least at Joe Gibbs Racing, about how to assemble a pit crew.

Previously, tire changers needed to remove the five lug nuts in less than a second to be among the best. With only one lug on the wheel, the focus turns to how the athlete moves from pit wall to the car, gets up after changing the tire and moves around the car to the other side. 

Over 10 months, Joe Gibbs Racing mixed-and-matched pit crew members and had them practice three days a week at the shop with the single-lug nut wheel. The stops were taped, analyzed and dissected. 

Chris Hall, director of player advancement at Joe Gibbs Racing, said the pit stops were “broken down into 100 time-stamped intervals” to study each athlete’s action. JGR partnered with a biomechanics company that specializes in movement and measures the force and displacement of the athletes. 

Say what?

Hall put it into a racer’s terms.

“We’re measuring the shocks and sway bars of our athletes,” he said.

They do it by measuring how an athlete moves laterally and their vertical jump, for example. By measuring various aspects of what each crew member does well, JGR can build a model of the optimal athlete for each position. 

“That kind of helps us in our recruiting efforts find guys who fall into these bubbles,” said Hall, who was a tire carrier on Truex’s 2017 championship team. “If you fall within a threshold of a bonafide top-three jackman in the sport, chances are you’re a hit. 

“(Data) is such a big part of our work. … The best guy plays. It’s all based off the work you put in practice, it’s the work you put in the gym and it’s what our models and biomechanical assessments say about you. 

“It’s really all these pillars we’re trying to build. Honestly, it’s about the system we’re putting in place at Joe Gibbs Racing.”

That system showed the JGR coaching staff how to mix and match their crew members. 

Hamlin’s team has only the same fueler as last year. Same for Truex’s pit crew. Bell has five new pit crew members with their experience ranging from rear tire changer Daniel Olszowy, who is making his first Daytona 500 start this weekend, to jackman T.J. Ford, who started as a pit crew member at Dale Earnhardt Inc. Kyle Busch’s team has three new pit crew members this year. 

“We always want people chasing us,” Hall said. “That bleeds through all of our company, but especially on pit road. 

“You’ll hear all the time — and it will drive me insane — ‘If we can come down pit road and not lose any track position.’ That’s not our philosophy. We come down pit road looking for blood. We’re ready to take advantage of teams that aren’t as prepared as we are and hope to capitalize on that any chance that we get.”

It also means the team is looking for new ways to service the car. Joe Gibbs Racing gave a sneak peak on social media recently to what is in store next month.

Starting March 20 at Atlanta, NASCAR will allow all pit crews to jump off the wall in front of the car. Currently, the rear tire changer must wait for the car to get into its stall and go around the back of the car. In that format, one crew member changes both rear tires and one changes both front tires. 

JGR has found it is more effective to have all five crew members jump off the pit wall in front of the car. The tire changer on the right front goes around the car to the left rear to change that tire instead of going to the left front. The crew member that changes right rear tire goes around to the left front.

It all looks good on paper. Now it has to work at the track.

2. Changing times

As teams prepared for the 2020 Daytona 500 — the last time this race was sold out before Sunday — there was no dirt race on the schedule, no race on Easter, only three road courses for Cup (instead of six) and series officials had only started the process to run the Clash inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The change has been swift and significant. 

The Clash at the Coliseum was a success with TV numbers and attendance that made series officials happy. While NASCAR has not stated if it will exercise the option to return the event there next year, it seems a good bet that the Clash will be back there. 

Those moves by NASCAR  — along with the debut of the Next Gen car this season — has energized the sport.

“I think the moves on the schedule have been a huge success,” RFK Racing co-owner Brad Keselowski said. “You could maybe argue long overdue. I am really happy to see the changes we have made and eagerly anticipating changes we will make to the schedule for years to come. 

“I think it drives an energy into our sport that is critical for our sustainability and success. If that comes with expense to the team along the way — and I think I can say this as a team owner now — we need to just suck it up and make it work. 

“When you look at those costs, they aren’t nothing without a doubt, but they are nowhere close to even more than 1 or 2 percent of our budget. I try not to sweat it.”

Among the changes this year to the schedule is putting the dirt race at Bristol on Easter, a holiday the sport traditionally did not race.

“There are a lot of people that are probably frustrated over racing on Easter in the garage area, but that is one of the biggest TV weekends for sports, so it made sense to me from that perspective,” Keselowski said. “I think we have a lot of good things going on, more good than bad than I have seen in my time at the Cup level which is 12 or 13 years now.

“There is a lot of reason for excitement, and I think we are on an upward trend and a big part of that starts with schedule variability that we really hadn’t had five or six years ago. It isn’t the only thing we have to be excited about but it is certainly one of the high tides for sure.”

Of course, one of the biggest changes is the new car, which is intended to lower barrier to entry for owners by having more parts provided by vendors instead of built by teams.

The result is that Sunday’s Daytona 500 will feature cars owned by Michael Jordan (23XI Racing), Pitbull (Trackhouse Racing) and famed boxer Floyd Mayweather (The Money Team Racing). None was in the sport in 2020.

“If you sit still, you get passed,” Joey Logano said. “It is like that on the race track and in life. If you get comfortable because it worked in the past, someone is figuring out how to get better. 

“On top of that, society is just changing and everything is moving along and technology changes, and if you don’t try to keep up with it, you get old and slow. We can’t let that happen. We have to keep moving forward and finding the next thing. I think we have done that over the last few years.”

3. Keep an eye on …

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said this week that he thinks Tyler Reddick will be a driver to watch.

“I think Tyler Reddick is going to have an amazing season,” Larson said. “I think he’s been the best car at all the tests. I think he showed last week at the Clash that he is really good.”

Reddick started second in the Clash after winning his heat race. His Clash came to an end when he had a prop shaft failure while leading the event.

With the Next Gen car featuring a composite body, the car can take more of an impact. For a driver like Reddick, who is known to run along the wall, that could be key. The previous car was prone to have the fender bend and cut a tire when the car hit the wall or another vehicle. 

Last year, Reddick put a focus on road courses after struggling on those in 2020. He went on to win the pole at Circuit of the Americas last year and finish ninth. He placed eighth at Road America and was second at the Charlotte Roval.

He used those offseason lessons to guide him this offseason in an effort to further improve.

“I feel when I watch him, I am watching myself just because we are both really aggressive,” Larson said of Reddick. “He seems to be even a little more aggressive and kind of keep things in control better than I could back when I was running really hard in Ganassi equipment trying to run up front.”

“He’s the guy that I look at this year that I feel like is going to have the breakout season and win a lot of races.”

4. Still paying dividends 

A year after Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500, that victory is making an impact for Front Row Motorsports.

One of the biggest benefits is how teams are paid. Part of their payment from each race is based on where the team finished in points the past three seasons. McDowell’s win put him in the playoffs and he finished 16th. General Manager Jerry Freeze told NBC Sports that without the win, the team would have been 23rd in points last year.

That difference, likely to be seven figures, is key as teams are faced with the expense of switching to the Next Gen car.

Freeze also said the win helped with sponsorship, saying the No. 34 team is in a better place than it has been.

“We’ve been able to get more response out of it we previously ever did,” he said. “I think it just gave Front Row Motorsports, Michael McDowell, more recognition with other marketers and other industries that maybe aren’t NASCAR savvy.”

Freeze said that only three races remain unsold on McDowell’s car this year.

But there is more than a financial benefit.

“The impact from Daytona, I feel as much, is just attitude of guys in the shop, that we can win a race against these guys,” Freeze said.

He noted the hiring of crew chief Blake Harris, who had been the car chief at Joe Gibbs Racing for Martin Truex Jr.’s team.

“I don’t know if the guy would have even considered us if we hadn’t proven we could win a race,” Freeze said.

5. Racing the boss

While Bubba Wallace is familiar with racing his boss, Denny Hamlin, last season, it will be a new experience for Chris Buescher, who is a teammate to team co-owner Brad Keselowski at RFK Racing.

Both Keselowski and Buescher seek their first Daytona 500 win, but both won their qualifying races Thursday night.

Keselowski was in position to win last year’s race before contact with teammate Joey Logano wrecked them and others on the last lap of the race, allowing Michael McDowell to win.

Buescher, whose best finish at in the 500 is third in 2020, was asked this week if he would feel comfortable moving Keselowski for the win.

“At the end of the day, for the 500, or for any race, I think I have told him that I will take a shot, but I am not going to wreck my teammate, and I am definitely not going to wreck my boss,” Buescher said. “I think you have to race hard, right? You want to be running 1-2 and have the opportunity to put the cars 1-2 across the line.”