Sunday afternoon (Aug. 3), Pocono Raceway saw one of its most engaging races.
From the get-go, the GoBowling.com 400’s start time was moved up due to the uncertainty of weather, causing teams to think twice about whether they were racing to a conclusion on lap 160. In fact, it was the story the entire weekend, with each of the three races going the entire scheduled distance – resulting in varying pit strategies.
With the skies brightening and the question of poor weather no longer a concern, it was still noticeable during a long green flag run that crews were mixing it up trying to do what the other car was not doing. The proverbial shuffling of the deck occurred over and over again during an early 57-lap period. Even as the cautions began to fall at a greater frequency in the second half, the mixed decisions continued playing a major factor. The question, then, is this: was it game-changing, or is the speed of the race car still more important? After all, one of the fastest cars in the race ended up winning.
During a late caution, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s crew chief Steve Letarte elected for him to come down pit road while teammate Jeff Gordon, a driver who remained on the same strategy as him much of the race, stayed out with the lead. The way the remainder of the race shook out made the difference when it came to track position.
“What it came down to was Steve’s strategy,” Earnhardt said after the race. “He pulled us on to pit road about four laps short of our window to go ahead and put four tires on and fill it up. With the big wreck on the back straightaway, that eliminated a lot of cars we would have restarted behind, so he had confidence with us restarting just inside the top 10.”
On the other side of the call, drivers like Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle decided to top off on fuel with one lap until green after a long cleanup from an earlier multi-car wreck. The strategy almost worked out for them both, but the unpredictability of further cautions bunched up the field not allowing them to hold off the faster competitors. Biffle was in prime position to steal one and all but reserve his way into the Chase for a team that desperately needed a turnaround.
“I’m heartbroken the caution came out when the No. 47 blew a tire; that killed our day because Kevin and I were out there,” Biffle said. “It was going to be Mickey Mouse, who was going to run out of fuel if they couldn’t catch us. It takes strategy to win these races. Not happy with the way we’re competing, we want to compete for these wins.”
So what is the winning strategy? In today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, winning is everything, and in order to be in position the crews have to think out of the box. It is something that has been witnessed on the road courses for years, with teams factoring when to pit under green by calculating from the end of the race to the beginning. There was a great amount of that type of stategy on Sunday at another track where a green flag pit stop does not guarantee one to lose a ton of track position if a yellow flag bunches the field.
“You have to be very creative with your strategy, the pit crew has to understand the strategy and execute it efficiently,” Letarte said. “You don’t ever want to assume anything, and I was very thankful to have my engineer up there today, he saw some things early in the race, and we discussed that strategy earlier in the race, and we didn’t take it under one of the cautions, and we saw that as our ‑ not our only opportunity, but like Dale said the [No.] 24 was so strong, we wanted to try to leapfrog them on pit road and not try to leave it up to circumstance on the racetrack. And that only works if everybody executes.”
With Pocono behind them perhaps this year more than ever track position near the end of a race will be crucial going forward and into the Chase. However, Letarte knows that you cannot look back on how one race turned out to determine how the next one goes.
“You can never close Pandora’s Box,” Letarte explained. “What I mean by that is, if I could go back 20 years and call a race for any driver at any track we could do better. And 20 years ago we went, we raced, and I go back and think of the races we won with Jeff [Gordon] and with Ray [Evernham] and I was there the day we took two tires with Jeff at New Hampshire and Jack Roush accused us of cheating. We beat him on two tires, and that was just track position, the door getting cracked open, that hey, you have to be quite a bit faster to pass me. Not just a little, quite a bit.”
With the top of the heap being so evenly matched, in most cases it is hard to pass. An all-out near-perfect performance has to occur to be in contention, and sometimes that doesn’t go according to plan either. What makes it worthwhile in the long run is making the best out of those not-so-good situations.
“Last weekend in Indianapolis we got caught by a caution, and the whole day got thrown into the garbage, and you would have never known it by the radio,” Letarte said. “He drove every single lap like we were the leader from that point forward, and we salvaged a top‑10 finish. And days like that make today easier to gamble on an alternate pit strategy. Because if it doesn’t work there’s not going to be fingers pointed at the end of the day, there’s going to be disappointment, which there should be, and then we move forward at Watkins Glen.”
There’s no doubt that Earnhardt’s pass for the lead on Biffle was predominantly due to the speed of his machine, but the strategy put him in the position to get the Pocono sweep. Everyone can agree on that.