Welcome to this week’s edition of Monday Morning Pit Box! Here, we view the race from a crew chief’s perspective and break down the calls that had a major impact on the event. (Occasionally, we go inside the booth and look at decisions NASCAR officials did or did not make from race control).
This week, the NASCAR Cup Series circus visited Texas Motor Speedway for the first race inside the playoffs Round of 12. Tire failures, vibrations and suspension issues lurked around every corner, a chaotic 500 miles that ended with Tyler Reddick claiming his third win of the season.
Behind Reddick’s win, his first at Texas, came a pivotal call from race control that affected the outcome for two championship contenders.
Lap 269: Denny Hamlin hits William Byron from behind under caution, no penalty
We’ll start out of order, midway through the final stage. As the caution came out for Martin Truex Jr.’s spin on the frontstretch, Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota spun around off the front end of William Byron’s Chevrolet.
The Byron/Hamlin altercation stemmed from an incident a few laps earlier where the duo were battling for second. As they came off turn 2, onto the backstretch, Hamlin appeared to push Byron up into the backstretch wall. Frustrated, Byron wound up retaliating although the driver admitted to Frontstretch after the race he didn’t mean to spin Hamlin out.
Hamlin wasn’t done with Byron just yet, as he hit the No. 24 of Byron from behind during the caution period, attempting to take his second-place spot in the running order back. But NASCAR would have none of it, instead sending Hamlin back to 20th for not maintaining speed under yellow.
Atop the Hamlin pit box, crew chief Chris Gabehart was furious Byron didn’t get penalized for what appeared to be obvious retaliation. “This man wrecks you under caution and he gets no penalty?” Gabehart said. “What are we doing?”
Hamlin agreed, claiming after the race he got “tight off of turn 2 with Byron and never made contact.” He vented frustration and worried about the precedent this situation set without any type of penalty.
Both drivers bounced back for a decent recovery. Byron wound up seventh at the checkered flag while Hamlin was 10th.
However, this incident could have been handled so much differently by race control. Not only should Byron have been penalized for contact under yellow, but both drivers should also have been called to the hauler after the race. Driver and owner point penalties would have set a precedent this type of on-track contact is over the line, especially when both teams are racing for a championship.
Instead, Byron got off scot free in a race where that type of retaliation could have turned dangerous; moments earlier, a scary wreck involving Cody Ware had him loaded into the ambulance on a stretcher. (Thankfully, he was treated and released from the infield care center). Any type of payback offers risk but especially so at TMS, where speeds on the frontstretch can reach upwards of 200 miles an hour.
The officials clearly made a poor judgment call on this one.
Lap 116: Tyler Reddick pits with a vibration
The Texas race was haunted by tire failures; there were a record 16 caution flags with no green flag run longer than 39 laps. Three drivers crashed out while literally leading the race as drivers were constantly running on the ragged edge.
Reddick could have been one of those drivers, too, discovering a vibration while running inside the top five during stage two. But instead of pushing it, the eventual race winner and crew chief Randall Burnett chose to come down pit road under green. The stop took them off the lead lap but it also kept them from hitting the SAFER barrier, a far better outcome that kept them in contention to eventually win the race.
Had Reddick not come in when he did, he may have ended up as just another crash victim on a day filled with faulty Goodyears. Instead, he persevered through adversity, clawing his way onto the lead lap, then back up through the field before leading the final 24 laps of the race en route to victory lane.
Laps 41-43: First pit stops set the stage for tire strategies galore
The very first pit stops under yellow set the stage for a wild Texas race to come. When Martin Truex Jr. spun to bring out the first caution, a number of different strategies were used. A two-tire stop for Kevin Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers gained his No. 4 team 10 spots. Ultimately, Harvick was unable to capitalize, failing to score a stage point, but it kicked off a number of aggressive strategies atop the pit box.
From that point on, it was a merry-go-round of different leaders up front as crew chiefs tried to walk a tightrope. This Goodyear tire had limited falloff, providing opportunities to stay out in order to gain track position. With passing near impossible, it was the only way to gain large chunks of positions outside of the first few laps of a restart.
But if you stayed out too long, you’d get burnt, a blown tire sending you hard into the wall and ending your day. Figuring out when and how to stay out made the difference and ultimately paid off for drivers like Reddick, Justin Haley (third) and Chase Briscoe (fifth) who babied older tires while staying out over multiple yellow flags.
“With 80 to go,” Briscoe said, “We were hoping to catch more cautions and make it on fuel. We were able to get our track position that way and it ended up working out.”
If you thought Texas was wild, just wait until next week, where treacherous Talladega Superspeedway awaits. Which crew chiefs will find the right combination of skill, strategy and luck to survive… and who will fall victim to the Big One as the NASCAR Playoffs rage on!
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