Good Monday morning, and thank you for starting your week with another edition of Monday Morning Pit Box following the running of the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway. In MMPB, we break down the previous NASCAR Cup Series race from the perspective of the crew chief, analyzing race-changing pit calls, pit stops and pit road penalties.
Pit strategy on Sunday circulated around two words: track position. Between the narrow layout of Martinsville and the Next Gen car’s short track package, passing cars was no small task, leading many teams to either stay out or take two or no tires in an attempt to move up the grid. The strategy paid off for some, but not for others. In particular, one playoff team had such a hard time on pit road that it cost them a shot at a championship.
Truex Jr., No. 19 Crew Fumble Win-and-In Opportunity
When the Cup Series playoffs started at Darlington, Martin Truex Jr. said that 2023 felt a lot like 2017, his championship year with Furniture Row Racing.
However, from the moment the green flag waved at Darlington, subpar speed, poor execution and bad luck befell the regular season champion No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team. After squeaking through the first two rounds, Truex found himself 17 points below the cutline going into Martinsville. At first, it looked as though Truex may redeem his championship bid, winning the pole and leading 47 laps in the early going.
But then Truex’s day turned sour on lap 219. Pitting under caution, Truex launched from the first pit stall to exit pit road second behind teammate Denny Hamlin, only to find out that he sped in his No. 19 Toyota. This sent Truex to the tail of the field.
“It’s completely different,” Truex said when asked about how the speeding penalty changed his race. “If we couldn’t find a way to flip track position pit stop-wise, we were never going to get there. Your car just drives so much worse in traffic.”
It only got worse for Truex, as on lap 265, the No. 19 pit crew that struggled all postseason long had problems again, dropping the jack when trying to change left-side tires. With only two cautions after that poor pit stop, Truex and the No. 19 team could not find an opportunity to regain track position, settling for a 12th-place finish and falling short of the Championship 4.
“I think it just shows how tough this sport is,” Truex reflected when asked by Marty Snider of NBC Sports about his playoff elimination. “We’ve been fast at times, but execution hasn’t been consistent. We’ve had some bad luck. We’ve had a little bit of everything.”
Call to Stay Out Doesn’t Pay Off for Almirola, Elliott and Others
On lap 325, under what turned out to be the final caution of the day, the field splintered on pit strategy. Three drivers — Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie and Erik Jones — stayed out to lead the field, while Aric Almirola won the race off of pit road by taking fuel only. Eventual race winner Ryan Blaney was among those who took four tires.
The trio that stayed out didn’t get the caution they needed to maintain track position and had to pit for fuel in the waning laps. While Almirola could make it on fuel, his hopes of winning in his next-to-last race with Stewart-Haas Racing faded when Blaney passed him for the lead with 23 laps remaining. Almirola held on to finish second ahead of Hamlin in third.
Look Ahead to Next Week
The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season culminates with the championship race at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 5. All eyes will be the Championship 4 of Blaney, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron. We have seen pit road play a key part in determining championships in the playoff era, including the No. 5 team’s clutch pit stop in 2021 and pit road gaffes costing Hamlin and Truex in 2019. With so little separation between the championship-contending teams, execution on the racetrack and pit road will be that much more important.
About the author
Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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