You've no doubt heard the term "pit strategy" bantered about quite a bit during the broadcasts of the Sprint Cup races lately. It is the hot topic for the moment.
The tire fiasco at Indianapolis last weekend served to emphasize how important it is to have a good pit strategy but to also have a Plan B, Plan C and maybe even a plan Z.
Preparing for a Sprint Cup race is much like preparing to go to war. A good crew chief -- just like a good general -- will have a primary plan of attack but he will also have several contingency plans to accommodate the changes he will inevitably face during the race. He must be a good student of history and a good tactician as well.
History is important in planning your strategy for a race. History comes from your team [and sister team's] notes developed from prior races and tests held at that track that were geared to that particular race plus the many observations you have made about other teams, their tactics and their relevant success against you there. And, you have to consider any new rules changes that have taken effect or changes in the track condition, etc.
Basically you need to consider the following elements or factors when you develop your game plan:
1. Is there a history of frequent cautions or are there long green flag runs?
2. Is the track considered a handling track or a horsepower track?
3. Does the track tighten up or free up as the race goes on?
4. What is the expected tire wear? You saw the importance of that at Indy.
5. Is it easy or difficult to pass on that track and where is it easier to pass?
6. Is it an impound race?
7. Where are you in the points?
8. Pit Road configuration can make pit selection important.
9. What is your car brand's history at this track for this race?
10. What is your particular team's history at this track for this race.
Other considerations will also be factored in but let's work through these primary ones.
1. Cautions play an important role in how you handle your pit stops, so studying the history of cautions will give you a better insight into what you probably will be dealing with on race day. Some tracks have long green flag runs as a norm while others are caution filled or have periods of high caution activity.
You would plot the historic pattern of cautions for that particular race to incorporate them into your strategy. The anticipated frequency of cautions would influence how you set up your car. Lots of cautions? Set the car up to be faster for short runs versus long runs. Anticipated cautions can influence whether you try to make a race an economy run.
2. A "handling" track versus a "horsepower" track. What's the difference? Daytona would be a good example because it is both. In February it is a horsepower track because February's cooler weather provides better grip for the tires than in the heat of July when good grip becomes more difficult to achieve as the track temperatures rise and oils seep up from the blacktop, etc. Horsepower doesn't help if you cannot transfer it to the track to achieve speed.
3. Most tracks will tighten up [gain grip] as the tire rubber gets worked into the surface but some actually loosen up. History tells the crew chief which one he is dealing with and he will adjust his car's set up accordingly. A car should naturally tighten up as the fuel load is burned off so the crew chief would normally want to start a run out a little on the loose side in anticipation of that happening. Any weight that is added to the car behind the center-line of the rear axle will loosen a car up so the fuel load also becomes an adjustment option late in the race.
4. Fuel burn and tire wear go hand-in-hand. Normally the car will need fuel about the same time it needs tires [by design] so if a particular track is abrasive and wears out the tires quickly then trying to make a fuel economy run may not be a smart move.
Maybe the track is particularly abrasive to right side tires -- think Indy -- but left side tires can make it for two fuel runs and not give up any significant lap time so the crew chief might just change right side tires for a quicker pit stop to gain track positions and gamble on having a caution before the left side tires give up.
5. How easy or difficult it is to pass on a particular track will definitely influence race and pit strategy. If, for example, it is easier to pass another car when coming off the corner versus going into the corner then the crew chief will want an engine and gear package that pulls harder coming off the corner to make the pass. Conversely, if the passing is easier going into a corner then he would want an engine and gearing that will have more pulling power on top end. Track position is also more important on a track where it is difficult to pass because if you can get up front to start and stay up front throughout the race then your pit decisions become much simpler.
6. Some races are "impound" races where the teams can only have minimal contact with the cars after they qualify. That puts a whole different slant on how the car is set up and what the teams do to it for qualifying versus racing.
Impound races are particularly unfair to the teams that are outside the top 35 in points because they have to qualify on their speed, which means they have to use a qualifying setup versus a race setup. If they make it into the race then they have to pit early to make extensive adjustments, which puts them back in the hole to gain enough points to get into the top 35. It is a no-win situation for teams hanging around at the bottom.
7. Which brings us to calculating your points against your competitor's points to determine what you need to do to gain or maintain your position.
If your car is in the top five in points then your strategy is different from a car that is trying to move up into the top 12 for the Chase or a car that is trying to make it into the top 35 in points. If you are in the top five then you will tend to be very conservative in your plan and your decisions during the race.
But if you need to move up in points or just make the race then you are forced to take chances that you would not normally consider. The strategies are based on what each team needs to accomplish during that particular race. And the decisions are fluid based on what is happening at that particular juncture of the race.
8. Pit selection is also critical at some tracks where pit entry is tight or the pit boxes are small, etc. You want your driver to have the best opportunity to get in and out of the pits with minimum problems. The pole winner gets first pick on a pit and then it goes down by the order of qualifying. If you want a good pit then make a good qualifying run.
9. While it is less critical today with the current car, brand performance was once a prime factor in how you approached a particular race. Years ago GM brand products tended to do better at Daytona in February while Ford products did better in July. Part of that was because of the comparative handling characteristics of the brands. Fords generally handled better on hot and slick tracks back then. However, even though today's cars are virtually identical, you can still see some trends where one brand outperforms the others at certain tracks.
10. How your team has done at a particular track will influence how you approach your preparation as well. Jimmie Johnson seemed to own Lowe's Motor Speedway for several years and virtually could do no wrong there.
Was it superior equipment or a collective team psychology that they expected to win or some of both? Drivers have favorite tracks where they tend to do better than at others.
But, again, it becomes a chicken and egg scenario. Does he do well there because he expects to or does he have some advantage over the other drivers at that particular track? The crew chief has to factor the driver into the equation just as much as he factors in projected fuel mileage or tire wear.
Race day pit strategy starts at the shop when the crew chief reviews all of the history of previous races and then decides how he will approach this particular race. Have recent races at that track been won on fuel economy? Has the tire wear or tire performance been such that the team is forced to pit frequently for new rubber? Does his driver like that particular track? Is his driver a charger or can he be held in check for a fuel economy run? The list is endless.
Once the race begins the crew chief has to be ready to alter his strategy at any moment when events on the track dictate that he do so. That was very evident at Indianapolis last week. And there is one final factor that no crew chief can control and that is that little four letter word called "Luck."
Either you have it or you don't. Now where did I put that horseshoe and my rabbit's foot?
Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.