Tony Stewart: Pit stop issues have kept Kevin Harvick from winning ‘half the races’

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If Tony Stewart had his way, Kevin Harvick wouldn’t need a pit crew.

“I think we could have won half the races this year if we didn’t have to pit,” Stewart said Wednesday at his Smoke Show charity event at Texas Motor Speedway.

The No. 4 team’s most recent mishap on pit road occurred Sunday at Dover. A valve stem was knocked off a tire during a Lap 321 pit stop and forced Harvick to pit a second time. That kept Harvick from sweeping both stages and winning after he led a race-high 286 laps. Harvick finished sixth.

“I mean, we got a good group of guys, and I think the change in the pit guns this year has really been hard on our guys,” Stewart said.

The Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner referenced the move by NASCAR to go to a spec pit gun this year over guns built by teams. The guns have garnered criticism from crew chiefs and drivers throughout the season, including Harvick.

“It’s much harder than people think,” Stewart said. “I mean people don’t understand that by slowing the guns down, you would think it would make it easier on these guys because they don’t have to go as fast.

“But the problem is they’re so used to being in time and being at a certain pace that now you’ve got to slow these guys down, and that’s why you see loose wheels because they’re used to moving their hands a lot faster and that pattern being faster. Now the guns can’t keep up with what we’re doing, so we have to slow our guys down to make sure that we don’t have those mistakes. That’s the hardest part.”

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But Stewart has no interest in going back to the old way of things.

“Trust me, the amount of money that the teams were spending developing their own guns was through the roof and it was stupid,” he said. “That was a very smart move by NASCAR to knock that part down. You know, they want the racing to be on the race track and that’s what we want too, so their goal with that was the right goal. Now we just got to slow our guys down enough to make sure they get each one of them tight.”

Dover’s mishap – which kept Harvick from winning for the first time in seven races – was the latest occurrence of a pit miscue undercutting Harvick’s race-winning speed.

In April at Texas, Harvick led 87 laps but endured a jack issue on pit road (Lap 129) and a penalty for too many crew members over the wall (Lap 237) before finishing second.

Harvick led at the final pit stop at Chicagoland but was beat off pit road by Kyle Busch, who went on to win. A few weeks later, SHR made pit crew changes to all four of its teams after Clint Bowyer expressed frustration with his group at Kentucky.

In the Brickyard 400 last month, Harvick was penalized for an uncontrolled tire penalty on Lap 10. On Lap 30, he had to pit a second time after a pit gun failed. On Lap 90, he had to pit from the lead for four tires to deal with a vibration. He placed fourth.

 

Aric Almirola’s speed neutralized by loose wheels, pit gun problems

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JOLIET, Ill. – The best car of Aric Almirola’s NASCAR career resulted in his second-worst finish of the 2018 season.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led a race-high 70 laps but finished 25th Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, victimized by two loose rear wheels that his team believes apparently happened because of a pit gun problem.

“That’s the best car I’ve ever had compared to the competition,” said Almirola, who also won the first stage after starting sixth. “It was just so fast. Our Smithfield Ford Fusion was excellent, especially out in clean air. It was just incredibly fast. We’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to put a whole race together. That’s the difference between being good and being great.

“We’re capable of winning. We showed it today. We’re capable. We’ve got speed. We’re bringing incredible race cars to the race track, and we’ve just got to put a whole day together. We’ve got to be flawless on pit road.”

It was a left-rear wheel that forced Almirola to pit from the lead on Lap 122 of 267. After cycling into the lead on Lap 135 because of being off-sequence, Almirola pitted from the lead under green on Lap 142 with a right-rear wheel that was loose.

Both times, he stayed on track a few laps after the vibration began, but “it was getting so violent, I couldn’t ride it out. It was really, really bad. I went a couple of extra laps hoping and praying for a caution, but it was getting so violent, I had to come.”

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier said the team had no loose wheels on the No. 10 Ford during the first 16 races this season.

“It was ultimately our rear gun,” he said. “We had our backup gun on the front, and the RPMs kind of fluctuated in the race. We thought we had it fixed. The changer didn’t feel he was going fast. We have to figure out what went wrong and why it is. There’s nothing conclusive right now.

“I feel we gave up a ton of points. I feel like we could have been there right at the end. It just stinks.”

Almirola remains winless since joining SHR this season despite two agonizing near-misses at the second victory of his career. He was a half-lap from winning the Daytona 500 before being bumped from the lead by Austin Dillon.

“Really, really frustrated, but the good news is our cars are fast,” said Almirola, who is 11th in the points standings and 126 points ahead of the current cut line for the playoffs. “We can build on that.

“We’re going to win a race. I guarantee we’re going to win a race. We just got to be perfect to do it.”

Martin Truex Jr. charges to second place in Coke 600 despite pit issues

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CONCORD, N.C. — The only reason Martin Truex Jr. didn’t get a shot at celebrating his second Coca-Cola 600 win was because the guy who finished in front of him – Kyle Busch – was “flawless.”

That’s how Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, described Busch’s night.

Truex’s 600 miles were anything but.

The No. 78 Toyota finished second in Sunday night’s race despite qualifying 15th and suffering consecutive pit road penalties, for speeding on Lap 203 and an uncontrolled tire on Lap 227.

The speeding penalty came after Truex entered and exited the pits in second.

Then there was the pit guns.

Pearn told NBC Sports the team went through three pit guns during the 400-lap race. One mishap resulted in the second penalty.

“The gun screwed up on the right rear and the front (tire) changer left and left the tire sitting there, cause usually the rear carrier comes to get it,” Pearn said. “But we went through three guns tonight … The whole reason we got the uncontrolled tire was cause the gun screwed up.”

Truex said the pit gun problem was “one of those freak things” where it reversed on the changer as he was hitting the fifth lug nut and he had to manually switch it back.

The No. 78 also had one unsecured lug nut following the race.

Even with the issues, Truex said it was a “solid day overall” for his team, which earned its third consecutive top five.

As for the speeding penalty?

“I can’t wait to see the time,” Truex said. “It couldn’t have been much. But I just hit some of those bumps a little bit wrong and got going a little too fast and tapped the brake just a split second too late. I typically don’t get a lot of speeding penalties, so Cole won’t ride my butt too hard this week about it.”

Truex said his team “cleaned it up well” after that.

The final restart came with 93 laps to go and Truex restarting eighth. With 55 to go he was in second, but lost multiple spots during green flag stops.

But he was back in second with 34 to go.

That’s when Pearn and his team started “praying” for a restart.

“I thought we were really equal to them the last few runs of the race,” Pearn said. “It was just a matter of track position and chasing from behind.”

Two years after Truex led 392 laps to capture his Coke 600 win, Busch led 377 while sweeping all four stages.

It was also the first time Truex hadn’t led a lap in the race since 2014.

“At the end of the day, we ran second,” Truex said. “He kicked everybody’s tail. That’s just the way it goes.”

Ryan: A tale of two short tracks (and maybe two driver temperaments)

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Two short tracks with highly anticipated stops on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Two agonizingly frustrating battles of unseasonable inclement spring weather ranging from untimely snow to bone-chilling cold (if you polled the NASCAR garage, what would be this week’s opinion on climate change?).

Two races in the tightest quarters of the 2018 season.

Two wildly differing outcomes.

Bristol Motor Speedway’s two-day spectacular was much better than Martinsville Speedway’s extraordinarily tame outing on a snow-delayed Monday two weeks earlier.

Why?

You could start with the surface. During the recent era of track treatment, rarely has a traction compound’s application drawn such universally positive reviews as Bristol this past weekend. Track officials took advice from drivers to heart and laid down PJ1 in a way that ensured the bottom groove was the fastest – which, as Jeff Burton noted on Monday’s NASCAR America, is the best version of the 0.533-mile oval.

They also weren’t shy about reapplying the sticky stuff Monday after 204 laps were run Sunday before the washout (and it is fair to ask whether midrace treatment of a track unjustly shapes the competition).

But Bristol’s success seemed less about the surface as the men trying to navigate its treacherous environs. From the jump Sunday, there was an aggressive bent behind the wheel that was missing at Martinsville.

What other factors might have been involved?

Martinsville led into one of two off-weeks this season, and the postponement already might have been cutting into preparations for precious vacation time. It doesn’t necessarily mean conscious choices were made to avoid forcing the issue on every lap, but there might have been a general complacency fostered by the cabin fever-bred anxiety of an extra day at the track (or a night in a motorhome) with spring break looming.

Bristol, meanwhile, was a cauldron of pent-up ambition that often spilled over the edge during the course of 27 hours. It felt like the first real short-track race of the season with the constant battles that have been the hallmark of Martinsville the last few seasons. There were more leaders, more lead changes and more than twice as many caution flags (subtracting the three for rain).

There’s no way to definitively explain the disparity, but Bristol and Martinsville did reinforce a commonly held axiom.

In races threatened or postponed by weather, the action usually goes one of two ways: Drivers go hell-bent for leather, or they log laps with a de-emphasis on drama.

It seemed as if we saw both sides in the season’s first two short tracks.


In his weekly appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell gave the most lucid and succinct explanation yet in what lies at the root of the pit gun debate.

Is it about the speed of the guns … or the swiftness of the pit crews?

As O’Donnell put it, the truth lies somewhere in between – and so does the pathway forward to getting everyone on the same page – which should be the primary goal instead of pointing fingers. As noted in last week’s column, there is more than enough culpability to go around.

The first step would be agreeing on what constitutes the better compromise: Paoli bringing its guns up to the level of the most elite pit crews, or teams retraining their athletes to slow down their lightning-quick hand speeds to adapt to the new guns.

Richard Childress Racing executive Andy Petree said in a revealing interview last week on FS1 that RCR had been counseling its crews to go slower and avoid “outrunning the equipment.” In postrace comments Monday to Dustin Long, it would seem Denny Hamlin would disagree with that approach.

This essentially is the crux of the issue to be discussed at the Team Owners Council meeting this week: Is it better to ask pit crews to change their ways, or manufacturer Paoli to change its guns?


Kyle Busch’s 49 points at Bristol were the third-lowest total for a race winner this season, and it essentially was because of an intriguing decision by Busch and several other teams near the end of Stage 1.

When the caution flew with five laps remaining in the stage, Busch was in second place behind Brad Keselowski, who elected to stay on track with five others: Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and AJ Allmendinger.

Busch lined up seventh for a one-lap restart to end the stage … and promptly dropped to 11th at the green and white flag – falling from a potential nine stage points to zero.

The decision worked out slightly better for Kyle Larson, but he still had a net loss of two points (taking fifth in the stage after falling third to eighth on the stop). It obviously went well for Keselowski, who earned 10 points and a playoff point with the stage win, and Bowyer (three), Almirola (eight) and Newman (two) all gained multiple points.

The scenario was an interesting window into how much teams value stage points. With a win and in the playoffs, Busch’s team traded points for potential track position with the threat of a shortened race (though the No. 18 Toyota still finished behind Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at the end of the second stage that made it official).

Keselowski, who still needs a win to lock up a berth, stayed out for maximum stage points and seemed pleased by the decision. “I hate to lose the track position, but that’s too many points to just throw away,” he radioed his team.

Points that could be remembered as critical when the series reaches the Brickyard in September.


As Burton and Steve Letarte alluded to on NASCAR America, there won’t necessarily be a happy ending in Cup for Ryan Preece’s Cinderella story. There is hardly room at Joe Gibbs Racing with Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez all locked in for the foreseeable future, and it’s difficult to forecast which other premier series rides could open.

But there simply must be a full-time ride at the very least in the Xfinity Series for Preece, who has two wins (including last Saturday at Bristol) over the past two seasons for JGR.

Besides being talented, the 27-year-old is articulate and relatable, and as he eloquently explained last weekend, Preece has become a hero to short-track fans and racers around the country. As Parker Kligerman (whose struggle for a full-time ride is similar to Preece’s) wrote in a column for NBCSports.com earlier this year, NASCAR still remains a breed apart from much of the ride-buying morass found in Formula One and IndyCar.

But the necessity of “pay” drivers seemingly gets worse in stock cars with each passing year, and when even championship contenders are asked to bring sponsorship, it’s problematic.

The challenge clearly lies in finding sponsorship, but at what point do teams get held accountable for a lack of hustling to find money for an attractive candidate such as Preece, choosing instead just to take another driver’s check?

If Preece starts 2019 without a fully funded ride, that’s a debate worth having.


Speaking of the Xfinity circuit, kudos to series director Wayne Auton for owning a mistakeafter Saturday’s Dash 4 Cash mixup and reinstalling Daniel Hemric’s eligibility. Though such errors must be kept to an extreme minimum, it’s understandable how this one might have occurred.

The incident occurred during an expedited postrace inspection at track to ensure the four cars eligible for the Xfinity promotion were confirmed for the following race at Richmond. Normally, such inspections take place at the R&D Center, but the goal is getting more of the postrace inspection process done at the track and avoiding the midweek announcements that often derail more compelling storylines (in all series).

If a car being incorrectly deemed illegal is a byproduct of ultimately getting to a better place with inspections, it’s worth the long-term trade-off.


It might have been overlooked because the announcement came during Monday’s resumed race at Bristol, but Eldora Speedway is doing something that might be a worthy weather contingency concept for all tracks that don’t have domes.

Giving fans six days’ notice, the track’s 65th season opener Saturday has been “flex-scheduled” to 4 p.m. – roughly three and a half hours earlier than its scheduled start – because of an ominous forecast for the Ohio dirt track.

Flex-scheduling has been used with success in the NFL to provide better competitive matchups. Eldora is trying it to optimize its schedules for fans and teams with the threat of poor weather conditions. While it might be more difficult for a series with a national TV partner, it seems at least worthy of consideration.

NASCAR addresses Denny Hamlin’s complaints on pit guns

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In the wake of Denny Hamlin’s pointed comments about pit guns, NASCAR senior executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said any that “any issues, we’ll get it fixed.” But he also expressed skepticism about snap judgments on the guns’ performance being made postrace by some drivers such as Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

During his weekly visit to “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, O’Donnell said Tuesday there would be a previously scheduled meeting with team owners this week in which the guns likely would be discussed. Car owner Joe Gibbs alluded to the meeting after Kyle Busch’s victory Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I think this is one of those topics we’ve always addressed, and to hit it head on on our part; it’s an initiative we continue to work on,” O’Donnell said. “We knew going in, the technology of the guns is not going to be what some of the teams were used to in the past. The hand speed (of pit crew members) is incredible. The talent is incredible.

“Somewhere in between lies the truth. … Any gun that malfunctions is not acceptable to us, but there are some occasions where someone may be moving a little too fast on a stop as well. That’ll be the dialogue that we discuss and really hearing from all the teams and what the feedback is. We’ve proven we’re going to get on that and work on that collectively and continue to improve on anything that might come up during a race.”

Both Hamlin and Harvick said the guns were faulty because they weren’t performing up to the air pressure and RPM standards that teams were accustomed to when they built their own guns prior to the 2018 season.

After consultation with the Team Owners Council, NASCAR mandated common pit guns that are issued randomly by manufacturer Paoli. The performance of the pit guns has been a significant storyline after at least three of seven races this season.

“Well, you look at the technology on the guns, the postrace reports, I’m frankly a little surprised that someone could come out after the race and talk about all the air pressures and everything when they have not diagnosed what may or may not have happened,” O’Donnell said. “So we do that. We work with our gun manufacturer to look through all those.

“When there is a gun failure, we absolutely will showcase it and admit it, but it’s also easy to say that the gun didn’t work. We understand that as well. Somewhere in there lies the truth. Any issues, we will get it fixed, but I’m also confident that we’re able to go out there and race and put on some great races as well. And not have that be the lead story going forward for sure.”

During an interview with NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after Monday’s race, Hamlin said NASCAR should return to last year’s pit guns and suggested that Joe Gibbs Racing could supply pit guns to all teams.

Gibbs later downplayed that idea, though.