INDIANAPOLIS – Let's get this out of the way immediately. Races dictated by pit strategy aren't inherently bad.
Hell, racing would be much more boring and predictable if there was no variability when it came to pit stops. The element of surprise – something that's severely lacking in today's NASCAR – would be all but gone if everyone was tethered to the same outlook on race management.
But the differing pit strategies employed by teams from the beginning of Sunday's Brickyard 400 were a glaring indictment on the lack of quality racing the track currently provides.
Because of rain overnight, NASCAR mandated a competition caution on lap 20. As a lot of teams headed to the pits, Joey Logano kicked off the strategy games by staying out, opting for the uber-important clean air of Indianapolis Motor Speedway instead of fresh tires.
Mind you, Indianapolis is conducive for games like this. With laps of approximately 50 seconds, a team within reasonable distance of the lead can elect to pit under green flag conditions and change four tires without losing a lap. That means the team under green is in an advantageous position if a caution is to come out after the pit stop and the rest of the field pits under caution, as the green-flag pitted team can move up ahead of all the cars that pitted during the yellow.
That was on the mind of Logano's crew chief Todd Gordon, who brought him in to the pits on lap 32.
"Being the first one to pit and then when it cycles out hope that your tires are good enough and your car is fast enough you can hold (the cars who pitted under yellow) off," Logano, who finished fifth, said. "We didn't have anything compared to (race-winner Jeff Gordon), so our strategy was to stay out there and just cycle forward every time you can."
But Gordon wasn't the impetus for the strategy games. The impossibility of passing was. Because of the way the cars are currently designed and configured, racing in traffic at such high-speeds around Indianapolis is a tall task. Outside of restarts, there are few, if any, opportunities to make up significant ground on the race track. Hence the differing strategies that especially dominated the first half of Sunday's race, resulting in a constant stream of cars to pit road under green.
The strategy game got Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb a third-place finish after starting 27th. And heck, if Hamlin hadn't left the pits with the fuel tank not completely full during one pit stop, he might have been fighting with Gordon and Kasey Kahne for the lead of the race at the end.
“I knew early in the race we had a car that was really fast," Hamlin said. Then Darian pulled that strategy and then we were going to have a 15 second lead with enough fuel to make it. Dang it. Just didn’t get it full that one stop. We had to get it full. We just didn’t get it full. Had to make that extra stop."
"Obviously, the passing is extremely difficult here. Whoever gets out front can really, really go. We passed all the cars that we needed to pass today.”
(After the race, NASCAR officials found issues with the rear firewall block-off plates on Hamlin's car. Any potential penalties will be announced later in the week.)
While Gordon, driver of the best car, won the race, the passing Hamlin refers to in his final sentence above is in reference to pit road. Outside of Gordon's pass of Kevin Harvick on lap two, there were no passes for the lead during the race that didn't immediately come by via a green flag pit stop cycle or immediately following a restart.
Heck, if it wasn't for the final caution of the race, Gordon may never have passed Kasey Kahne for the lead had Kahne been able to make it to the finish of the race on fuel. And it's why Gordon's pass for win on the restart was so important. Whoever got out front was going to nearly unbeatable.
It's a common theme in NASCAR but it's one amplified with a megaphone at Indianapolis. The myriad of pit strategies added a much-needed layer of intrigue. But the layer isn't thick. It's actually quite revealing.
However, there's no magic wand to wave over Indianapolis when it comes to stock cars and the quality of racing. Would an increased apron for more passing space into the turns help? Perhaps. Could slower speeds from the proposed smaller engines in the Cup Series in the future make a difference? Possibly. Are there changes to be made to a car that was designed to help make passing more freuqent? Hopefully.
The racing at Indianapolis doesn't have to be thrill-a-minute and the field doesn't have to be bunched up 1-43 like a restrictor plate race either. The cachet of IMS helps make the Brickyard 400 a crown jewel race on the Cup Series schedule, but that reputation alone can't make it a must-see event. And neither do pit strategies.
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