You Make The Call

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There are 30 laps to go in a NASCAR Winston Cup race, and you’re the leader’s crew chief. Suddenly, the caution comes out.

Now is when the wheels really start turning. Do we pit? Do we take two tires? Do we take four tires? Do we make adjustments? Do we have enough fuel?

You better know the answers ahead of time, because there’s nowhere near enough time to figure them out. Plus, the pressure is really on now. You think it was hard to breathe a few seconds ago? Try breathing now.

This is why these guys make the big bucks. And in this age of Winston Cup racing, crew chiefs have more to do with whether their driver wins than at any time in the history of the sport.

That’s because of the closeness of the competition, the aerodynamics of the cars and the hardness of Goodyear’s tires. Cars and drivers are often equally matched, so separation has to come from somewhere else. These days, it can be on pit road.

And since the cars are so aero sensitive, it’s more important than ever to be out front. That might even mean sacrificing newer, better tires for track position, like Jimmie Johnson did in California in April. Johnson’s team took on fuel only, and Johnson got the lead and the victory.

Part of the equation involves Goodyear’s tire, which doesn’t “give up” as much as past softer tires. A tire with 50 laps on it often is almost as good as a “sticker” tire.

Throw all those into the mix, and add in the pressure of the moment, and you know what a crew chief has to think about.

“It’s probably the toughest call on pit road because a lot depends on what everybody else does,’ said Jimmy Makar, crew chief for Bobby Labonte. “You can make a good call for your call, but other people can do things that lose you track position. Even though you’ve got a better car by the changes you made or by the call you made, the track position kills you, and you’re not able to get back up to the front.

“It’s just so interactive with what everybody else does anymore that you almost have to think about what the other guy’s strategy is going to be and try to take a guess as to what is going to happen on pit road.”

And that can be frustrating.

“I liked it better when everybody came in and bolted on four (tires),” driver Tony Stewart said. “I thought it was better racing for the fans that way. You’d have that last pit stop with 20 to go, and everybody knew it was going to be your last pit stop no matter what. You’d see those fans when guys were coming out of the pits, and they’d either be cheering because their driver had a good stop or bummed because their driver had a bad stop. That was as much a part of the race as anything else was.

“Now, nobody really pays attention to the pit stop, because it doesn’t really matter until they get back out there and get going again. They have to wait and see if their team made the right decision or not, so I don’t think the pit stops are as exciting as they used to be.”

And it has made life more difficult for crew chiefs.

“It’s a lot harder this way. There’s no doubt about that,” Makar said. “It’s a lot tougher. It was nice when you used to know that when the caution came out, you were going to get four tires. There were no decisions. The driver was going to be happy. Today, you’ve got to fight the drivers a little bit sometimes. They want four tires, but you know two tires is a better call for track position and things like that.

“It’s just a very different game than it used to be. I find it hard to do – and I think some of the other guys that have been around a long time find it hard to do – to not just come get four tires and know you’ve got a good race car that can race back to the front. If you don’t have the track position, that doesn’t happen anymore.”

On the final pit stop, it’s almost bad to be the leader. Because no matter what you do, someone will do something different, and it may cost you the race. Make a safe call and put on four tires, and you could find yourself buried in traffic. Make a daring call and take two tires, and everyone else might change four, and you’ll be a sitting duck. Make an incredibly daring call and stay out … well, you get the idea.

“It used to be whatever the leader did, everybody else did,” said James Ince, crew chief for Johnny Benson. “Anymore, whatever second place does is what everybody else does. It’s not always a lot of fun to be the leader when it comes to that deal, real close to the end of the race. They can make you look real stupid by the stuff that they go and do.

“But all you can do is make the best decisions you can about what your car is capable of. You go do that, and you don’t worry about it.”

For Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway, there’s even more to think about. Fuel mileage always plays a role at the 2-mile track, with several races won by drivers who were able to stay out longer on one tank of gas.

“How the heck can you test for fuel mileage races?” said Bill Wilburn, Rusty Wallace’s crew chief. “Or, would testing do you a ton of good when it comes down to races being won by two-tire or no-tire pit stop strategy at the end? The bottom line is that those have been the deciding factors in the biggest part of Michigan races.”

And you have to be ready for it.

“Figuring fuel mileage is easy at the start of the race,” Petty said. “OK, how many laps can we go under green? 51? OK, perfect. So if I pit on Lap 149 (of 200), then I can finish the race on fuel. If I do that, then my pit stop before would be on Lap 98. And if I can do that, my first pit stop would come on Lap 47. You figure it backwards to figure it forwards. Assuming the race goes green the whole way, I don’t gain anything by pitting before Lap 47, and my window gives me until Lap 51. So if it looks like a lot of guys have stopped under green on 46 and 47, I might wait until 50 to come in, just in case there is a caution.

“In a perfect world, or perfect race, I take it from there. Where it gets hairy is when you have a caution at Lap 35 or something, and everybody in the pits is throwing around calculators and note pads, trying to totally refigure the mileage. There are computer programs that figure it, too. For figuring fuel mileage, you throw everything out when you pit under caution – for calculating, it’s a brand new race from that point on.”

Until the final caution, if there is one.

That’s when the tough decisions are made, and races are won – or lost.

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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