Dr. Diandra: How to understand COTA pit strategy


Pit strategy has always been key at road courses. But some rules changes this weekend have crew chiefs digging back in the history books to develop their COTA pit strategies.

This week’s race at COTA features:

  • The first running of the short track aero package at road courses
  • A new tire with more falloff
  • The first use of the choose rule at road courses
  • No cautions at stage breaks.

The last of these is likely the most significant. It offers opportunities for the most clever — or most desperate — crew chiefs.

But pit strategy is also one of the more confusing areas to understand.

The setup

The Cup Series race at COTA is 68 laps. Stage 1 ends on Lap 15 and stage 2 on Lap 30. The top-10 drivers at the end of each stage earn stage points. Each stage winner earns a playoff point.

The fuel window, according to NBC’s Steve Letarte, is around 22 to 25 laps. Dividing 68 laps by the number of laps in the fuel window tells you that every car must stop at least twice. NASCAR sets stage lengths so that drivers must make at least one stop during the third stage.

I represented each lap by a box and the fuel run by a bar in the diagram below. The top boxes show the ideal race without stage breaks and the bottom with stage breaks.

A graphic showing the green/yellow flag pattern to illustrate COTA pit strategy

To understand pit strategy, let’s examine how three drivers ran COTA last year: Race winner Ross Chastain, second-place finisher Alex Bowman and fifth-place driver Ryan Blaney.

Chastain chooses track position

Chastain short-pitted, meaning that he pitted while he still had plenty of gas. He pitted a total of three times during the race.

  • Pit stop one was a green flag stop on Lap 13 from eighth place. With stage breaks, pit road closes two laps before stage end, so that’s the last possible chance to pit in the stage.
  • Chastain made a second green flag stop on Lap 28, again two laps before stage end. Chastain had been running second and came off pit road running eighth.
  • His last pit stop was Lap 42, due to an unexpected caution. Chastain was leading coming into the pits. Because it’s hard to lose a lap at a road track the size of COTA, he kept the lead.

Chastain earned 40 points for winning and three points from stage two, for a total of 43 points. He also earned five all-important playoff points for the win.

Bowman’s strategy

Bowman started fifth and also made three pit stops.

  • Bowman earned eight stage points running third as stage one ended. He pitted after the stage. He started the second stage in 21st, behind all the cars that pitted before the stage ended.
  • He was running 15th as the end of stage 2 neared. Because he wasn’t going to earn any stage points, he pitted early.
  • Like Chastain, Bowman took advantage of the Lap 42 caution to pit for the third time in the race.

Bowman earned 35 points for finishing second, but those eight stage points brought him up to 43 points — the same total as Chastain, but without the five playoff points.

The stage break conundrum

Those examples of 2022 COTA pit strategy illustrate the primary disadvantage of stage breaks at road courses. Crew chiefs must choose stage points or track position. As my colleague Dustin Long points out, 48.3% of drivers who finished in the top 10 in Cup road course races last year did not score points in either of the first two stages.

No road course winner in 2022 scored more than 47 points (Daniel Suárez) out of the maximum 60 points.

The other disadvantage of stage breaks is that they allow for limited strategies. Crew chiefs can mostly guess what the other crew chiefs are planning to do.

Letarte envisions the possibility of a COTA race with limited cautions.

“There’s an opportunity to not have a lot of yellows,” he said in the video above this story, “so I think this race has a chance to be won by the absolute fastest car and not double-file restarts and not those other things.”

The Texas two-stop

With no stage breaks, crew chiefs are preparing multiple COTA pit strategies for everything from 68 green flag laps to lots of cautions.

COTA can be run in two pit stops, but only Ryan Blaney did that last year. He finished sixth.

I graphically compare Blaney’s COTA pit strategy last year with the other two approaches in the diagram below. Note that everyone took advantage of the first caution in Stage 3 that would let them finish the race without pitting again.

A graphic comparison of COTA pit strategies from 2022 for Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney and Ross ChastainAlthough Blaney earned 32 points from his sixth-place finish, he left COTA with 47 points because of the stage points he collected. That’s the most points any driver earned at COTA.

Here’s one more motivation to minimize pit stops: Every time a car pulls onto pit road, it creates opportunities for mistakes and penalties. While a driver might gain positions, he could also lose them.

Don’t expect everyone to go with the Texas two-stop, however.

“If you and I don’t qualify in the top-15,” Letarte said in the MotorMouths video. “I’m not waiting for the first pit stop. I’m pitting you about Lap 17… and all I’m doing is playing the game of ‘something else.’ Sometimes you have to do ‘something else’ and hope you get a yellow.”

Here is a look at how the strategy played out in last year’s race in video form:A video showing pit strategy graphically


RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”







Dr. Diandra: Charlotte’s 600 miles test man more than machine


This weekend’s 600-mile outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s the ultimate stock car challenge: not just making a car fast but making it fast for a long time.

Although 600 miles is nowhere near the 3,300-plus miles in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the pace is similar. Most of NASCAR’s 600-mile races run between four and five hours.

The 1960 World 600 set the record for this race, requiring five hours, 34 minutes, and six seconds to complete — and it had only eight cautions. The second longest race, the very next year, ran 12 minutes shorter than the previous year’s outing.

The longest race in the modern era (1972 to present) happened in 2005. That race took five hours, 13 minutes, and 52 seconds to complete and set a record for cautions with 22.

Last year’s event was the second-longest modern-era race. With four fewer cautions than 2005, the 2022 race took just 44 seconds less to complete.

The field for the 1960 race included 60 cars. Only 18 of those cars (30%) crossed the finish line.

NASCAR disqualified six drivers for making illegal entrances to pit road. The reasons for the remaining 36 DNFs reads like an inventory of car parts, from “A-frame” to “valve.”

The number of cars failing to finish the race decreased significantly over the years. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not uncommon for 50-70% of the field to drop out of the race before its end. As the graph below shows, the DNF rate is now in the range of 10-30%.

A bar chart shows how DNFs have decreased over time and turned the the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

Last year — the first year of the Next Gen car — had an abnormally high 46% DNF rate. That doesn’t signify a problem with car reliability.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Increased car reliability makes people more important

Racecar evolution has changed the nature of NASCAR’s longest race. The car have become so reliable that Charlotte’s 600-mile race is now more a test of drivers than their cars.

“All of the components in the car are pretty standard,” Chase Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “So you just want to make sure you have it all in good condition and dot all your I’s and cross your T’s.”

That wasn’t how it used to be. Kevin Harvick remembers that drivers used to be warned to take care of their equipment early so it would last until the end.

“The engine guys freak out because you have to go an extra 100 miles, but the parts and stuff on the car are a lot more durable than they used to be,” Harvick said. “Back in the day, it was ‘take care of the motor.’ ”

Drivers worry much less about their car’s engine today. The graph below shows how DNFs due to engine failure have decreased since NASCAR started running 600-mile races.

A bar chart shows that engine failures have gone from 50-70% to 10-30%, turning the 600-mile Charlotte race inot more a test of man than machine

In 1966, more than half the field lost an engine during the race. Only six cars have retired due to engine failure in the last five years.

While cars are more reliable, their drivers are still human. Crash-related DNFs (crashes, failure to beat the DVP clock and inability to meet maximum speed) show no clear trend over time.

A bar chart shows how the number of DNFs due to crashes doesn't show any overall trend with time

Typically, between five to 10% of the cars starting a race will fail to finish due to an accident rather than a mechanical failure. Last year’s race was an exception, setting a record for the largest fraction of the field taken out by crashes since the 600-miler began.

It’s only one data point as far as 600-mile races are concerned. It is, however, indicative of a trend observed since the Next Gen car debuted. The car is so sturdy that contact is no longer the deterrent it used to be.

Man versus machine

NASCAR’s only 600-mile outing has become an endurance race for humans. Drivers draw upon research in hydration, nutrition and fitness, hoping to create an advantage by preparation and conditioning.

“As a driver,” Daniel Suárez said, “your goal is to be as fresh at the end of the race as you are at the beginning. It isn’t about making it to the end of the race. It’s about being at your best at the end and taking advantage of other drivers who are tired.”

Harrison Burton, who ran his first 600-mile race last year, was surprised by how taxing that extra stage was.

“I figured it’s only 100 more miles than 500 and we do that fairly frequently and didn’t think it would be that different,” Burton said, “but for whatever reason when that fourth stage starts it’s definitely daunting.

Burton also noted that last year’s Coca-Cola 600 was the first time he got hungry during a race.

“It’s actually a really important race to have something to snack on in the car during the race,” Ross Chastain said. “I typically have some sort of protein bar that I can eat during a stage break just to try and keep my stamina up.”

The driver isn’t the only one whose mental acumen gets tested during the Coca-Cola 600. Crew chiefs and pit crews must work at peak form for a longer time.

“There’s more pit stops, there’s more restarts, there’s more strategy calls and there’s more laps,” Gustafson said. “There’s more everything.”

That means more opportunities to make mistakes or lose focus — or to take advantage of other drivers who do.