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 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.
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 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.
Although 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: