Race Weekend Central

Monday Morning Pit Box: Key Southern 500 Crew Chief Calls

Author’s Note: Welcome to the first edition of Monday Morning Pit Box. Here’s where we break down all the critical calls that shaped the outcome of a race, looking at life from a crew chief’s perspective.

This weekend, we were in Darlington for the first race of the 2022 NASCAR Playoffs, the Southern 500. One of the sport’s crown jewel events ended with Erik Jones bringing the No. 43 back to Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway for the first time since 1967; that’s 55 years to the exact day (Sept. 4) of Richard Petty’s last victory there.

Behind that Jones upset, let’s break down some crucial pit road moments that may influence who winds up in the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway down the road.

1. Holding Kevin Harvick on pit lane during the competition yellow (lap 36)

It’s lap 36, we’re under the competition yellow and it’s a four-tire change for 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick. On the right side of the car, everything goes OK but on the left side, there’s a hiccup. The crew takes so long to get the left front off, they drop the jack early before all four wheels are properly secured.

Harvick started to pull away, but without the left front tire in place, he was forced to back up and finished what turned out to be a lengthy stop. Had he pulled away, he wouldn’t have gotten very far and it likely would have resulted in an automatic four-race suspension for crew chief Rodney Childers as well as two of Harvick’s crew members.

It’s a penalty we’ve seen pop up all season long with drivers like Bubba Wallace at Circuit of the Americas, Denny Hamlin at Dover Motor Speedway and Kyle Larson at Sonoma Raceway. Getting bitten by the loose wheel epidemic would be even more costly for a championship contender during the playoffs.

Letting Harvick drive away would have been disastrous. Instead, Childers made the smart call to keep Harvick on pit road, lose the track position and ensure all four wheels were on the car. It took much of the race for Harvick to earn that track position back, failing to earn a stage point before a rocker panel failure eventually ended his night. The story then became his concern about safety surrounding the Next Gen chassis.

Those comments will bury this moment in the headlines. But a four-race suspension of Childers after this disastrous start to the Round of 16 would have made things so much worse.

See also
Multiple Mechanical Failures Put Top NASCAR Playoff Drivers on the Postseason Back Foot

2. Letting Kyle Larson run with potential electrical issues

We take things to lap 79. The field had just made green flag stops when Kyle Larson, running 16th, pitted unexpectedly with a potential engine issue. The crew looked over the car, believed they had the problem figured out, then sent Larson back on track. Larson wound up three laps down and at one point fell four laps behind in the midst of green flag pit cycles.

“It sounded funny off of (turn) 2 for a lap,” Larson explained. “By the time I got back around, it was really laying down. People are passing me, and I was kind of pulling down and letting people go. We pitted and nothing looked funny. We went back out and it kind of ran crappy for a few laps, and then kind of cleared itself out and it was fine the rest of the race.”

From there, crew chief Cliff Daniels was able to persevere and engineer a comeback on strategy. Despite a lap 193 spin by his driver, Daniels improved the handling for Larson while taking a few gambles on top of the pit box. Staying out for wave arounds during a flurry of cautions in stage two, he was able to claw the No. 5 team back to just one lap off the pace. Then, at the end of stage two, Larson was able to position himself as the first car one lap down, earning the free pass and somehow climbing back onto the lead lap.

That allowed Larson to drive up to 12th, a difference of about 15 positions compared to four laps behind. The deficit would have been even worse if Daniels and the crew took too much time on pit road to diagnose the problem.

Daniels’ gambles gone right are reminiscent of another critical Hendrick Motorsports call at Darlington: the 2007 Southern 500. Late in the race, Jeff Gordon started overheating, spewing water from the hood of his car. However, then-crew chief Steve Letarte left him out and Gordon led the final laps on the way to another Darlington win, his sixth overall.

Here, crew chief Daniels pulled from the Letarte playbook and may have just saved Kyle Larson’s bid to repeat as champion.

3. Kyle Busch short-pitting

Flash forward to lap 153. Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez came in just over a third of the way through stage two and short pitted. What is short pitting, for those new to NASCAR? It’s when you pit under green a few laps earlier than your fuel window, hoping the extra laps on fresh tires give you an edge once the pit cycle finishes up. But there’s a risk with short pitting; if a caution comes out in the middle of pit stops, you could be trapped a lap down or worse.

Crew chief Ben Beshore made the call here, hoping to build a cushion out front with the No. 18 Toyota. It worked beautifully; despite losing the lead until lap 168, the No. 18 Toyota came back out front with a solid advantage over the competition. A caution for Todd Gilliland’s spin came out shortly after the cycle of stops completed, leaving Busch in perfect position to finish the stage with the same tires as everyone else.

Busch wound up the control car on the lap 186 restart, leading to a Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2 finish in stage two. Unfortunately, Busch’s engine gave out while leading during the final stage; he wound up 30th despite leading a race-high 155 laps.

Next week, it’s race two of the NASCAR Playoffs as we commemorate the heroes of 9/11 in America’s heartland at Kansas Speedway. Which crew chiefs will stand out at the 1.5-mile oval as the Round of 16 soldiers on?

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: DARLINGTON

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kb

Good read….

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