The NextGen car promises to level the playing field for well-funded and less-well-funded teams. But what about pit-stop costs?
NASCAR’s Cost-Cutting Measures
Fifteen years ago, you would need $15 million to have a shot at running for a championship. Now, that number is more like $35 million. In the last few years, NASCAR has searched for ways to bring down the cost of fielding a competitive car. That’s the motivation behind the NextGen car, as well as limits on how many people each team may bring to the track, and decreasing the number of people on the pit crew.
Elite teams hire elite athletes. Their pay is elite, too. How much of a difference do these team members make in getting a car in and out of the pits? If higher pit-stop costs produce significant advantages, teams will be willing to pay a lot of money for incremental improvement.
We’ve seen many cases where a second makes a big difference in how many positions you gain or lose coming back out on track. If the lower-funded team are always a second (or more behind), can they ever catch up?
Are pit-stop costs the next place NASCAR has to attack to improve equity?
- I used pit stop data from 2019, 2020, and 2021 to race #9. I confirmed general conclusions with pit stop data from 2017 & 2018; however, I was missing a data for a few races for those years.
- I consider only the time the car is in the pit box. These numbers don’t include how long the driver takes to get on and off pit road
- I considered only four-tire pit stops. They constitute the majority of all stops and are a good measure of a pit crew’s basic abilities.
- Pit stops that happened right after the car was involved in an accident or spin were excluded. Those stops may be listed as four-tire change stops, but they usually include fixing car damage to the car and thus take longer.
- I excluded pit stops that took longer than 24 seconds. I assume that most of those stops involved significantly more than a four-tire change (e.g. fixing damage from a prior accident; fixing radio or harness issues).
- There were very few of these stops for well-funded teams, so this exclusion did not affect them much.
- It does, however, give the benefit of the doubt to teams that are actually do take longer than 24 seconds for a four-tire pit stop because their slowest stops aren’t being counted.
- I did not consider for changes in a pit crew over a season.
- Drivers can impact pit stops by where they stop in the box, if they have to back up, if they’re too close to the wall, etc. Pit crews can also be slowed down due to activity in the pit boxes on either side of them.
- The pit-box location can also make a difference. A box with an empty space behind it may help the driver position the car more accurately. That’s determined by the team’s overall performance, something that is largely in the hands of the driver and crew chief.
Pit Stops Over a Season
I started by graphing each qualifying pit stop over the course of each season for each car. That’s a lot of data. I’ll look at 2021 because we’ve only had nine races (and only eight races with data because there were no pit stops at the Bristol Dirt race.
High Pit-Stop Costs
Let’s look at one of the best pit crews so far: The Stewart-Haas #4 team. (The Joe Gibbs racing #11 team is also one of the top crews this year.)
- They’re really good. I plotted all the cars on the same axes so you can compare easily. But the majority of their pit stops fall on the lower third of the graph.
- There doesn’t seem to be much difference between green-flag and yellow-flag stops. I couldn’t find any patterns whereby one was usually faster. They’re on, no matter what the flag.
- They’re consistent. There’s not much of spread in the data. At Homestead, for example, their fastest stop was 12.5 seconds and their slowest was 13.2 seconds.
- Even the best have slower pit stops. That 21.5 second stop at Martinsville was at the stage break. My guess is that they were doing more than just four tires. But if I only counted pit stops below 21 seconds for this analysis, that eliminates a couple of the slower teams entirely.
That last point is important. A good pit stop requires all five crew members to be perfect. If any one of them is off, the time suffers. A basketball team can compensate for one player having an off night, but a pit crew cannot. If one string on a banjo is out of tune, nothing you play on it will sound right.
Medium Pit-Stop Costs
Let’s look now at the #99 team of Trackhouse Racing. Their record is pretty good for a brand-new team that hasn’t had much practice time because of COVID. More of the pit stops fall in the middle third of the graph, although there are still a good number in the lower third.
- On average, they’re not as fast. The #4 had one stop over 16 seconds. The #99 has 15.
- There doesn’t seem to be much difference between green-flag and yellow-flag stops. Same as above.
- They’re not as consistent. There’s a much bigger spread in the data for each race. If you look at Martinsville, for example, the fastest pit stop was 15.4 seconds and the slowest was 19.9 seconds.
- Their best stops are pretty good. There are 6 stops under 14 seconds.
- Their best stop isn’t as good at the elite team’s best stop. The #99’s best pit stop was 13.47 seconds. The best stop on the #4 team was 12.55 seconds.
Lower Pit-Stop Costs
I wanted a team with a charter that competes regularly, but working with much smaller budgets than the first two teams. I landed on Rick Ware Racing’s #53 car. To be fair, the #53 is the slowest of his three teams, but I’m trying to show you the extremes.
- They’re not fast. Their stops occupy the upper third of the graph.
- Their green-flag stops seem to be faster than their yellow-flag stops.
- They’re more consistent.
- Their best stop isn’t fast The #53’s best pit stop was 19.5 seconds. Compare that with the best stop on the #4 team (12.6 s) and on the #99 team (13.5 s).
Just so you know I’m not making conclusions based on nine races, here’s the data for the #4 from 2020. To make the data simpler to understand, I plotted a dot at the mean value and extended arms up to the longest pit stop and down to the shortest.
Pit Stop Advantages by Race
To compare all the teams, we’d like to get all the data on one graph, but that means looking at the data by race. So let’s arbitrarily pick this year’s Atlanta race. I’ve put each car number below its line. No red lines means only one stop qualified for inclusion.
- While pit stop times are better for some companies relative to others, every team has an off day. But when an elite team has an off day (see the 2, 19 or 22), we’re taking about averages in the 14.5-second range.
- 10 of the cars had mean pit stop times below 14 seconds.
- 4 (Stewart Haas Racing)
- 5, 9, 24, 48 (Hendrick Motorsports)
- 11, 18 (Joe Gibbs Racing)
- 12 (Penske Racing)
- 17 (Roush Fenway Racing)
- 21 (Wood Brothers Racing)
- While some mid-funded teams had good average pit-stop times, they were still a good second or more slower than the best teams.
- Not all the teams within one company performed at the same level at this race.
Fastest Pit Stop of the Race
This information is on the above graph, but I thought it was clearer by itself.
If you’re the 34 or the 99, the best case is that you’re 1-1.25 s down. When the leaders are winning and losing races due to tenths of seconds on pit road, one second is a huge disadvantage.
The numbers, of course, vary from race to race. So let’s look at the averages for full seasons. I showed only the line to the fastest stop because, the course of a season, every team has one (or more) really bad stops. So if you look at the dots, you’re seeing the average trends. If you look at the bottom of the dashed lines, you’re seeing the best pit stops of the year
- You can see clear trends in companies now.
- Penske’s 2, 12, and 22 have mean pit-stop times of 14.52s, 14.05s and 14.21 s.
- Gibbs has more of a range. The 11,18 and 19 are pretty comparable, but the 20 is a half-second slower.
- The mid-pack teams like the 34 and 99 are a good second to second-and-a-half slower than the the top-tier teams.
And here’s the data for 2020, which show similar trends. Interestingly, I had to lower the y-axis scale because there were faster stops in 2020 than we’ve had this year so far.
But the same general pattern holds for 2020 (and 2019) as for 2021.
- The better-funded teams are 1-2 seconds faster than the middle tier teams
- The better-funded teams are 4+ seconds faster than the least-well-funded teams.
How to Fix the Pit-Stop Costs issue
The Wood Brothers (and then Ray Evernham) transformed pit stops into a critical part of competition. With limitations on how you can change the car, pit-stop costs have risen. In the late 2000s, a lot of teams still had their mechanics pitting the cars, with maybe a few special hires for critical positions like Jackman.
Today, the best pit-crew members are professional-level athletes. They can easily break the six-figure-salary mark, with reports of salaries in the mid $100,000s for the best-funded teams. (As a comparison, Bob Levine mentioned on Twitter that a mechanic with his shop would have made about $80,000 to start.) If you can’t afford to pay that well, you’re going to lose time on every pit stop relative to the teams with deeper pocketbooks. Plus, when lower-funded teams do find a pit-stop gem in the rough, it’s not unusual for them to be recruited away with a higher salary.
There are multiple ways for NASCAR to control the pit-stop cost problem. The easiest is to, as they’ve done with some XFINITY and Truck races, is to eliminate pit stops and have a timed period within which to make changes. (They did that at the Cup Bristol dirt race.) That might not be popular with some fans who enjoy the competition on pit road and it would eliminate about 200 jobs. On the positive side, the mechanics might enjoy a salary boost if they’re doing the adjustments during races. (And I happen to like seeing crew chiefs actually wrenching on the car!)
A less drastic approach would be a salary cap, as in football. That would decrease pit-crew salaries, but preserve jobs while still leveling out the impact on less-well-funded teams.
Or they can leave things as they are and all the money teams are predicted to save with the NextGen car will go to the pit crew, the same way teams plowed tens of thousands of dollars into engineering air guns before NASCAR put a stop to that.