Jimmie Johnson knew he was toast 35 laps from the finish of the FedEx 400 at Dover International. As he sat on pit road, waiting for his pit crew to change all four tires, he watched as car after car rolled by.
Calmly, he keyed in over his radio asking crew chief Chad Knaus why they didn't take just two tires.
"I'm sorry," Knaus radioed back. "I made a mistake."
The difference between taking two tires vs. four was the difference between winning and losing. Matt Kenseth took two and won the race. Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Johnson took four and, despite leading 353 of 400 laps, finished sixth, seventh and ninth, respectively.
It's the second straight week a race has been lost on pit road. Don't expect that to keep happening.
In the past, crew chiefs have been loathe to gamble on pit road, usually because there was a fear that swimming away from the pack exposed you to criticism or worse – a pink slip. But the wild card to get into the Chase is changing all that.
These days, the reward is actually greater than the risk. Gamble on pit road, get a win under your belt and you could steal one of the wild-card spots in the Chase given to the two drivers with the most wins not inside the top 10. Regan Smith did just that last week when he opted not to follow the leaders down pit road in the closing laps at Darlington. He assumed the lead by not pitting and never gave it up. While he's still a long shot to qualify for the Chase, he's a lot closer today than he was a week ago.
Smith's win has gotten a lot of attention, and not just because it was his first, but because of how he did it. At Dover, Kenseth was hardly alone in taking a gamble. Mark Martin, a non-factor the entire race, didn't even come down pit road when a caution flew with 39 laps to go. He finished second. Brian Vickers opted against four tires and finished fifth.
Johnson, Edwards and Bowyer, who entered pit road as the leader but left in eighth after taking four tires, were relegated to the role of spectators in the closing laps.
"I looked at everybody in the mirror; I saw everybody on the apron. I thought it wasn't going to be good for me if I [took four tires] and restarted and finished about 15th," Kenseth explained. "As I slid into the stall, I said, 'Jimmy [Fennig, crew chief], are you sure you don't want to try two?' He didn't even hesitate. He's like, 'Two tires, two tires.' "
Martin started first on the restart, but Kenseth quickly moved to the front with 33 laps to go and cruised home to his second win of the season. Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson managed to gain a few spots, but never got close to challenging for the win.
"I guess in our minds we didn't think that would take place, so many guys taking two [tires]," Johnson said. "It was certainly the call. I knew basically from the numbers we were in trouble when we left pit road and there were so many guys in front of us."
When asked if he had to do it over again would he take two tires, Johnson said, "Looking back, it is easy. At the time, we had done four all day, and we saw some two [tire stops in Saturday's Nationwide race] and it didn't pan out. Four looked like the call so I have [Knaus'] back. It is not a big deal."
Maybe it's not a big deal for Johnson, but that's because he still sits second in the standings. But don't think for a second Knaus, Bob Osbourne (Edwards' crew chief) and Gil Martin (Bowyer's crew chief) aren't stewing over their decisions. How Smith won at Darlington and how Kenseth won at Dover are absolutely being scrutinized by everyone in the garage.
The wild card, coupled with how difficult it is to pass because the competition is so incredibly even, is changing the game in the Sprint Cup Series. What was once the safe route – taking four tires and fuel – may just become the new Hail Mary.
"This is the era of NASCAR racing that we have today," Mark Martin said. "Twenty years ago, there weren't so many cars the same speed and passing and overtaking was easy. Not so easy now because you have the world's greatest drivers, 40 deep, 40 darn good racecars out there, too."
And now there's an understanding that somebody's going to roll the dice, and if you're not one of them, you may just be left sitting on pit road watching the world go by as you wait for two more tires.
- Chad Knaus