Pit Stop Two-Steps

Joe Gibbs Racing’s new pit-stop choreography made its debut at Richmond. How big of an advantage does it provide?

Lap 74, Richmond Raceway

Fans and visitors usually crowd the pits for the first stop of a race. But today, Kyle Busch’s pit box hosted a horde of reporters, all crowding around with cameras and phones out.

When the yellow flag flew, team members sprang into action. The over-the-wall crew crouched on the top of the pit wall like cats ready to pounce Behind the wall, additional crew members readied to trap tires or wrangle hoses.

In a traditional pit stop, the front tire folks go around the front of the car and the rear-tire folks go around the rear. Until recently, that was the only way to do a pit stop according to NASCAR rules. When those rules changed, Joe Gibbs racing developed a new pit-stop choreography they believe will give them an advantage of as much as a half-second per pit stop.

So today, the rear tire changer readied himself to leap out in front of the race car.

The Stop

Busch screeched into the pit box. The pit crew leapt over the wall. Right side tires. Left side tires. Fuel. Busch peeled out of the box.

History had been made.

If this was a movie, Kyle Busch wouldn’t have had a problem getting his car in gear. NASCAR timing and scoring would have recorded the pit-stop duration as about 10.75 seconds. But Busch did have problems and the official time was 12.93 seconds.

But what timing and scoring measured wasn’t the point.

According to JGR, the pit crew had fueled the car and changed four tires in 9.9 seconds from the time the car stopped to the time it started moving again. On lap 234, the #18 team did even better: four tires and fuel in 9.1 seconds. JGR says this is the fastest stop recorded in NASCAR history.

Here’s the #11 performing the new pit-stop choreography, along with an explanation from Mike Joy.

A Head-to-Head Comparison

One complication in understanding these pit stops is that the numbers JGR cites — which are taken from video of the stops — aren’t the numbers NASCAR measures in their timing and scoring.

Let’s compare Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick’s stops on Lap 354. The columns tally JGR’s times and the NASCAR timing and scoring data for the time spent in the pit and the total time on pit road.

DriverJGR TimesPit In-Pit OutPit Road Entry-Pit Road Exit
Hamlin 9.410.4039.05
Harvick 9.910.7439.14
Hamlin Advantage -0.5-0.34-0.09
All times in seconds

A pit stop requires a huge number of steps, some of which don’t even involve the pit crew. Although Hamlin’s pit crew got him a half-second advantage over Harvick’s, Hamlin’s total advantage on the pit stop was less than a tenth of a second.

Hamlin v. Harvick

JGR released limited data. Let’s compare the rest of Hamlin and Harvick’s pit stops, keeping in mind that Hamlin’s team did not use the alternate choreography on all of their stops.

I know, another busy graph. Let’s take it piece by piece.

Harvick’s pit stops are in blue. Hamlin’s are in green. The bottom-most segment — the one with the cross hatching — is the time spent in the pit box. I put it on the bottom because that makes it easiest to compare. Harvick was faster in the pit box only once relative to Hamlin, on lap 234. More on that in a moment.

The next bar up is the time the driver took to get to his pit box, and the final block is the time the driver took to get from the pit box to the end of pit road.

There are a range of outcomes. Harvick beats Hamlin overall in two stops. In the second-to last stop, which did use the new pit-stop choreography, Hamlin beat Harvick by 0.9 seconds.

Best Stops of the Race

I don’t have access to JGR’s numbers for all the pit stops. But going by NASCAR timing and scoring, Kyle Busch’s record-breaking four-tire pit stop wasn’t the fastest of the day.

This graph shows time spent in the pit box. I suppressed the zero on the vertical scale to make the differences large enough to see.

The fastest four-tire pit stop honor goes to William Byron’s #24 crew. Their lap-234 stop took 9.97 seconds. That’s three-hundredths of a second faster than NASCAR timing and scoring measured the #18’s fastest stop.

But the next three fastest stops are all JGR teams. JGR told RACER’s Kelly Crandall that there were 12 nine-second stops at the Richmond race. JGR, they say, accounted for seven (58.3%) of them. In my counting, seven of the top 20 fastest stops measured by NASCAR were JGR teams. That includes four out of the top five fastest stops.

Advantages of the New Pit Choreography

The pit stop itself is, as mentioned earlier, just one part of the equation. Even a 8.8-second pit stop won’t save you if your driver incurs a speeding penalty. But seconds saved in the pits can help offset mistakes elsewhere.

These were the first in-race stops using the alternative pit-stop choreography. The earlier stops didn’t go as smoothly as later stops. The pit crews had to adjust to how fast their drivers came into the box, and drivers aren’t always as precise about where they stop as the pit-practice driver. JGR has executed sub nine-second stops during practice and they expect to be able to meet that time during races soon. So we really need to compare the potential advantages to what we saw in Richmond.

The most important advantage of the new choreography, of course, is the possibility of spending less time on pit road than your competition. Time gained on pit road is time the driver and crew chief don’t have to make up on the track. That’s especially critical at tracks where passing is really hard — like Richmond.

JGR has been one of the most innovative teams in NASCAR. One of the problems with innovations is that once one team does it, everyone else pretty much has to do it, too.

JGR believes their eight months of experience will give them an advantage while other teams are perfecting the new pit-stop choreography. I’ll be watching for the first non-Toyota team to try this maneuver so we can compare their times to the times JGR posted at Richmond.

Right now, a really good stop using the old pit-stop choreography got just as good a time as the new steps. But as JGR pit crews improve, we are likely to find that the new pit-stop choreography cannot be matched by the old-style pit stop.

Disadvantages

The new pit-stop choreography isn’t a perfect solution, nor it is a replacement for the old-style stop. And the new technique has disadvantages, some of which are significant.

Complexity

More complexity and more people involved behind the wall means more places for things to go wrong. When Bubba Wallace’s car chief was sent home following a multiple inspection failure, the team opted not to try the new-style pit stop. The car chief was needed behind the wall to maneuver hoses. That the team didn’t feel confident subbing in someone else tells you that this isn’t easy. In the coming races, I’ll be looking for whether teams using the new pit-choreography incur more penalties than those sticking with the old-style stops.

I also wonder whether having two different types of stops will lead to muscle-memory confusion. One of the reasons pit crews have become so fast is repetition to the point that the body knows what to do without the brain consciously having to tell it.

Right Place, Right Time

The old-style pit stop can be done at any track, in any pit box, at any time. The new pit-stop choreography is a little more demanding. From what I was able to see on pit road, the cars need to stop as far back in the box as they can. At Richmond, JGR (in orange, below) had pit boxes with unused pit stalls or openings immediately in front or back.

The 24, which had the race’s fastest pit stop, was also by an opening, but they were close to the end of pit road, which is its own advantage. The position of timing lines relative to pit stalls has always been important, and may outweigh the advantages of the new pit-stop choreography in places.

JGR cars won’t always qualify well enough to get those ideal pit stalls.

The best case for the new-style pit stop is a wide pit box, with really good sight lines. COTA’s pit road, for example, was just too narrow. This week at Martinsville, some pit stalls may be amenable to the technique while others may not. And I suspect other crew chiefs will make it as hard as possible for JGR to get those good pit stalls.

One final issue in the where-and-when category: The old-style pit stop is required if the crew chief needs to make an adjustment to the car.

Safety

The reason no one’s tried this type of stop before is that, until the Atlanta race, NASCAR required the rear tire changer to go around the back of the car. That rule originated from safety concerns. Jumping out in front of cars is dangerous. More people jumping out in front of pitting cars presents more danger, not just because there’s one more person, but there’s more opportunity for one misstep to throw off everyone. Dale Jarrett, in the NASCAR on NBC podcast, remembers crew members being injured or killed on pit road. He worries that the additional risk of the new choreography isn’t worth saving a little time on pit stops.

Tipping the Playing Field

As I’ve noted before, the NextGen car doesn’t remove the huge disparity in the amount of money teams spend on pit crew salaries and training. The added complication of an additional pit-stop style will only further separate the haves and have-nots — the opposite of what NASCAR says they want.

Conclusion

The new pit-stop choreography is not a superior way to pit, but an alternative approach that offers an advantage in some cases. It can’t be used at all tracks or even under all circumstances. But when a team needs a good pit stop for a win or a championship, those that have mastered the form have an advantage.

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