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What Exactly Is NASCAR Pit Strategy?

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Cody Williams

Cody Williams is the author of BUNNY BOY and THE FIFTH LINE. He lives near Bristol, TN.
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A breakdown of pit strategy and all its components, from tire changes to common costly mistakes

Perhaps one of the most integral parts of any race team’s weekend success is NASCAR pit strategy. Every race, NASCAR drivers enter the pits to put on fresh rubber or fuel up. Typically, this process takes place during the stage breaks and usually once roughly halfway through the final stage of the race. However, sometimes teams feel the itch to roll the dice. Maybe it’s because they hadn’t won in a while. Maybe it’s because they’re thirsting for another victory to add to their yearly statistics. And sometimes, it’s just to try something different to gain valuable track position. Or, on the flip side of that, it’s to gain a handful of stage points.

Regardless of the reasoning, pit strategy wins (and loses) races. So, that begs the question: What is pit strategy? Let’s talk about it in all its various components.

Fueling

Fuel strategy races are hardly a thing anymore. But back in the day, knowing how to conserve fuel or short-pitting could sometimes change the game in the latter stages of a race. Dale Jr. broke a long winless drought (the second longest of his career) in 2008 with a fuel mileage win at Michigan.

And then, on the side of heartbreak, in 2011 amidst the longest win of his career that wouldn’t be snapped until 4 years after the 2008 win at Michigan, Dale Jr. came up just a hundred yards short of victory in the Coca-Cola 600. What was Dale Jr.’s (and Junior Nation’s) most devastating losses ended up being a massive win for none other than the closer himself, Kevin Harvick.

With stage cautions, not to mention fuel-injecting engines, it’s not as common for drivers to just run out of gas before the completion of a race. But it does happen, on occasion. Sometimes, the gas man doesn’t get the entire fuel cell full, which can lead to the driver running out of fuel in the closing laps of a given race. This begs the question: What determines how long a car remains in its pit stall fueling up? Well, typically, that depends on the tire strategy, which we’ll discuss in greater detail in the next session.

Basically, the driver’s cue to go is once it is let off the jack. So, depending on whether the driver is taking only two fresh tires or four is typically how much fuel the car is getting. So, a car getting four fresh tires is taking in a lot more fuel than a car getting only two.

If the crew chief’s calculator is correct, the driver should be fine. But sometimes, there are mistakes in the math, which leads to drivers running out of fuel and, ultimately, losing races.

To Change 4 Tires or 2?

The biggest wildcard when it comes to pit strategy is the tire strategy. This is because, above all else, the difference between two and four fresh tires is illustrated best with the track speed of the car. However, deciding what the ideal tire strategy should be is largely dependent on the rubber compound Goodyear brings to each individual race as well as the track condition. The most memorable tire issue from 2023 was when the NASCAR Cup Series returned to North Wilkesboro Speedway for the All-Star race.

For the first time in that track’s history, Goodyear brought a wet-weather-purpose tire in the event that rain caused track conditions to become a little damp. These tires were made of a harder rubber compound than NASCAR’s traditional slicks and therefore could handle more abuse. When teams arrived in Wilkes County, they knew that the potential for tire wear was pretty high considering the aged, worn-out surface of the track’s asphalt. This in tandem with the rubber compound of the slicks made the average green flag run the rubber could withstand settle around 17 laps.

On the flip side of that, a track that has been recently repaved is not as hard on the Goodyear rubber, and therefore tires show less wear and can last quite a bit longer. That is not to say that speed does not get rubbed off, of course, it does. And that’s where the strategy comes into play. Depending on when a driver and crew chief decide to pit, this can either help them or hurt them in terms of long-term race strategy.

Fresher tires almost always run faster than scuffs or older tires. So, the earlier a driver pits, the more speed they’ll pick up on the drivers who, at that point, have stayed out. Meanwhile, drivers who stay out for track position or in hopes that a caution will help them get caught back up will lose time to those who recently pitted but will be able to last longer on the next cycle.

The decision to take 2 tires, 4 tires, or no tires could deeply affect the outcome of a given driver’s race, for better or worse.

Pitting As A Caution Comes Out

Pitting as a caution is coming out is a slippery slope that could greatly help a driver out but it could also put them so far behind that they either spend the whole race trying to make that ground back up or they never truly recover. This video by Joe Gibbs Racing’s YouTube channel explains this issue in great detail:

Basically, if a driver is on pit road and a caution comes out, their position on the track will be determined by where they come out of pit road in relation to the leader. If the driver goes a lap down in the process, then they are either stuck a lap down or, if all the lead lap drivers pit, they can take the waive around but will still have to restart the race in the back of the pack, regardless of where they were running when they initially entered pit road. If the leader passes the start/finish line before the driver can exit pit road, the driver is then trapped a lap down. On the opposite side of that, if the driver is able to escape pit road before the pace car makes it to the start/finish line, the driver will then get to leapfrog all the other drivers who pit during the caution and will then be in better position to compete for a solid finish.

A mistake here can really hurt a driver’s chances of winning or even gaining a decent finish. It can put them behind and playing catchup all race.

Common Penalties and Mistakes

If getting trapped a lap down and mired back in traffic due to a poorly-time caution wasn’t enough to ruin a driver’s day, costly mistakes on pit road that result in penalties could potentially be enough to end it. Easily the most common of these penalties is a pass-through penalty as a result of speeding on pit road. Pit road has a set speed in which drivers must maintain through all electrically scored sectors. Typically, this speed is somewhere between 30 and 60 miles per hour but each track is different. This is why is it so important that the driver’s digital dash and lighting system is accurately set to that weekend’s pit road speed limit.

If a driver is caught by radar speeding on pit road, they will be forced to do a drive-through penalty which could result in the driver being laps down (in the case of short tracks like Bristol or Martinsville), mired back in traffic, or, worse, isolated with no sniff of the draft on superspeedway style tracks (like Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta).

Another common penalty in the lower series, such as Xfinity or Trucks, is a loose lug nut penalty. This isn’t really as big of a problem anymore in Cup as they only have a single lug on all four tires but in Xfinity and Trucks, there are still 5 and all need to be tightened. This is due A.) to safety concerns, and B.) to avoid a needless caution that sees someone’s tire fly off their car while they’re at maximum speed. This typically results in a monetary fine for the driver, the crew chief, and/or the team owner and can sometimes yield a points penalty.

Then there are the penalties for a team having too many crew members over the wall, pitting outside the box, or equipment (and tires) leaving the pit box. Typically, the penalty for these infractions is to simply restart at the tail end of the longest line, with no monetary fine necessary.

Conclusion

Pit strategy directly affects the flow and outcome of any given race and is an integral part of a team’s race day plan. So, Daily Downforce readers, what are your questions in regard to pit strategy? Do you miss the days of intense fuel strategy races or do you like the flow the current stage racing gives us? Let us know! Keep it right here at DailyDownforce.com for all your latest off-season NASCAR news stories and fan discussion topics!

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Picture of Cody Williams

Cody Williams

Cody Williams is the author of BUNNY BOY and THE FIFTH LINE. He lives near Bristol, TN.
All Posts