Drivers continue to pay the price as teams push for faster pit stops

As teams continue to push the envelope on pit road, the drivers are hurting in terms of results and also peace of mind. Lee Spencer explains.

Drivers continue to pay the price as teams push for faster pit stops
Pit road action
Pit stop Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Pit stop action
Pit stop Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Haas crew members wait on pit road
Wheels preparation
Spinning wheel
Pit stop Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Tire changer
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Greg Ives
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in trouble
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
NASCAR Official
Monitors convey information from pit road to NASCAR officials
Steve O'Donnell

For the second week in a row, Martin Truex Jr. was bit in the pits. 

After leading 141 laps at Texas, Truex was unable to pit in the final stages of the race. On new tires, Kyle Busch easily out-ran the more dominant No. 78 Furniture Row Racing car on the restart to take the lead with 33 laps remaining and held on for the win. 

Fast forward to Bristol Motor Speedway. Again, Truex was having a solid run. He was fourth when a loose lugnut from service on Lap 254, forced him to pit again. Truex dropped to 26th. Although he recovered — and was running second to eventual race winner Carl Edwards on Lap 408 — a loose right-front wheel 16 circuits later sent Truex to the pits again. Truex dropped to 26th and lost a lap in the process. 

It’s not worth the risk or the reward. You spend just as much time trying to hit three in a triangle as you do four in your normal pattern

Roush pit crew coach Rodney Fetters

Although Truex salvaged a 14th-place finish over the final 75 laps, he was left wondering what could have been.

"We had another strong Toyota Camry today, but the finish obviously didn’t match the performance,” Truex said. “We were contending and had a fast car. But that loose wheel near the end of the race spoiled an excellent opportunity.”

Truex wasn’t the only driver to suffer the effects of loose lugs. Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and AJ Allmendinger all befell the results of loose lugnuts. But Truex’s double trouble made it virtually impossible to recover. 

"Three (lug nuts) will not work for long"

Roush Fenway Racing pit crew coach Rodney Fetters says it’s become standard for most teams to glue five lugnuts on the wheel hub and then pull one off prior to service for a four-lug stop. 

“Three will not work for long,” Fetters said. “Most teams go with four. Some have been going with three for the “money” stop at certain tracks, but that’s foolish. If you are one nut short, then there’s only two that are secure — and that won’t last at all. 

“It’s not worth the risk or the reward. You spend just as much time trying to hit three in a triangle as you do four in your normal pattern. We have tested this time and again, which is why we do four.”

The "reward" is track position. The "risk"? On the mild side, the repercussions of loose lugs — or lack of a lug(s) could be as simple as a vibration. Certainly, if the vibration intensifies, a driver could whine until the team is forced to change the tire. 

At the severe end of the spectrum, according to the NASCAR rulebook (12.5.3.4.1) should a wheel come off of the car on the track under competition due to improper installation, the subsequent penalty (P3) would result in a mandatory minimum four-race suspension of the crew chief, tire changer and tire carrier of the lost wheel. The penalty could also include the loss of 15 Championship Owner and Driver points, a fine from between $20,000 and $50,000 as well as probation.

Dale Jr. "freaked out" by loose wheel issues

Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered through a loose wheel two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway. He admits it was disconcerting.

"It’s freaky, man," said Earnhardt, who finished second on Sunday. "For me I’m one of the guys who is freaked out by it. I wish I could not care when the wheels are shaking, but you do. I’ve had a few come off and it never ends well. I don’t want any to come off.

"When we have a loose wheel we lose a lap or a lot of track time. We spend a lot of time trying to get back on the lead lap in these races where we have those loose wheels. It just really delays the ability to run well and can hinder the results of the races.”

I could not believe that was the choice that they made

Dale Jr. on NASCAR removing pit road officials

Earnhardt’s crew chief Greg Ives says he’s been a proponent of five lug nuts. While the No. 88 pit crew has been “phenomenal” this season, the second-season Cup crew chief realizes a loose wheel can affect his driver’s confidence. 

“I know he feels more comfortable with five lug nuts on rather than four,” Ives said on Sirius/XM NASCAR Radio. “But sometimes when you’re trying to hit four, you only get three. That would cost a couple of laps at Bristol. We just wanted to make sure we were good and safe there and give Dale the car he needed to make the moves on the restarts and get the breaks that we needed.”

Ives acknowledged the day might come when he has to make a three-lugnut call in order to maintain or gain positions on pit road. But Earnhardt would prefer to remain in the dark with the decision rather than worry about how secure his wheels are after leaving pit road.

“From the seat of the car when I have a loose wheel I get really upset about it,” Earnhardt said. “The ones that I’ve had, they tend to continue to shake worse and worse and worse. That tells you that it’s working its way off the car. There is no way to know when that thing is going to come off until it does. I’ve had wheels that I thought weren’t that bad that came off the car. Then I’ve had wheels that shook like crazy that I never would have thought would have made it to the next pit stop. 

“If you have a lot of wheels that are loose in your career there is no real way to understand exactly what you are dealing with when it happens. You don’t know whether they tried to put five on and only got four or they tried to put four on and only got three or if they only got one. You don’t know. It freaks me out.

When NASCAR decreased its pit road workforce and elected to stop officiating tire-changing before the start of last season, Earnhardt was “blown away”.  

“I could not believe that was the choice that they made,” Earnhardt said. “But that is the world we live in.  There are not enough officials today to revert so it’s a knot that can’t be retied.  We will just have to try to do the best we can as drivers not to end up in the fence.” 

NASCAR monitoring the situation

NASCAR Senior Vice President Steve O’Donnell said on Sirius/XM Radio on Monday the sanctioning body would continue to monitor the situation. 

“We’ve got our competition meeting monthly where we meet with the teams and raise any issues that they see as something we got to address — probably mores immediately,” O’Donnell said. “In our minds, we put that back on the teams. We’re seeing it correct itself in the race. It’s certainly not an advantage when you have to come in and pit the car. 

“But we’ll bring it up in the next competition meeting and see if there’s anything we can do to fix it.”

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