It's the summer of pit strategy.
Working a race "backward," or attempting to stop as few times as possible and under green-flag conditions as much as possible, is a relatively rare strategy throughout the 36 races in a Sprint Cup season. But when it happens, it happens at tracks like Indianapolis, Pocono, Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The five races at those four tracks are all from June-August, including the three-race Pocono, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen stretch that ends on Sunday.
Over the last two races, one of the better teams at the strategy game has been the No. 22 team and Joey Logano. Logano finished fifth at Indianapolis and third at Pocono on Sunday and told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that approaching a race like Indy or Pocono, where it benefits you to have a defined strategy going in, is different.
"It’s interesting because as a driver, one minute you’re running in the top five and the next minute you’re 25th and and asking ‘Where am I, actually and where is this going to all come out at the end?,'" Logano said after playing some soccer with defending MLS champions Sporting Kansas City. "But usually there’s a late caution at some point — and in each of these races there’s been a late race caution that brings you back together and then you kind of know where you’re at."
(Logano won't be mistaken for a professional soccer player anytime soon. While he enjoyed getting crosses from the players he said it was the first time he'd played soccer since elementary school.)
"(Crew chief) Todd Gordon’s done a good job calling the races these last two weeks that we’ve cycled back out for the most part in pretty good shape and been on the right cycle and we’re proud of that fact," Logano continued. "He’s been studying the races and making the right calls, so that’s important."
The reason for the strategy racing at the tracks is simple. Track position has become paramount, and while it can be inherently difficult to pass at a road course, a lack of tire fall-off and aerodynamic factors make passing hard at Indy and Pocono.
"That’s kind of been the mentality of everyone out there right now. It’s so hard to pass, tires don’t fall off and clean air is worth so much," Logano said. "So when you get up towards the top five your car handles so much better that clean air is worth more than tires. If you’re up towards the top five, you’re car’s going to drive better then than you would in 20th place with four brand new tires on it. And that’s why we race the way we’ve been the last few weeks. At these type of racetracks, the big racetracks, the hard tire, the newer asphalt, that’s why the race comes out that way."
One of the drivers who made a big climb through the field at Indianapolis through strategy and with a fast car was Denny Hamlin at Indianapolis. However, after issues were found in post-race inspection after Hamlin finished third, the No. 11 team was penalized 75 points and crew chief Darian Grubb was suspended six races.
Under previous Chase formats, a points penalty that large could be detrimental as Hamlin dropped to 22nd in the points standings. But since Hamlin won at Talladega in May, he's already qualified for the Chase; there's basically no impact on his qualification.
In April of last year, when the top 10+two wild cards Chase format was in existence, Logano and Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski were penalized for infractions at Texas. Each lost a crew chief for six weeks, and were penalized 25 points. He ended up making the top 10 before the Chase cutoff by a single point.
Logano noted the differing Chase contexts surrounding the two penalties.
"The thing is, it’s different," Logano said. "Because when we got the penalty we were trying to get into the Chase. so it was a big hurt for us. Obviously the points hurt us a lot trying to get in the Chase and not having our crew chief. In his case, a big points hit, that’s not going to mean anything. Points don’t mean a thing, so that’s whatever. The money is money, our sport’s not getting any cheaper, so money is good to have for the race team so that’s a hit. And not having your crew chief and your car chief there, that’s a hit. But they’re going to have them before the Chase comes back."
"It was more severe for us, but on paper it wasn’t. It’s just different for who it is. And good for them, they worked hard earlier in the year to get that win, they deserve to be in the Chase, those are the rules. Yeah, it’s still a big penalty, their circumstances, because of their win, aren’t as bad for them. Their hard work paid off. They got the win, so they’re in good shape."
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