If you want to see lead changes, watch pit road

Race wins are often determined by the final pit stop (Getty Images)

Having a fast and efficient pit crew has always been an essential part of winning at the NASCAR Cup Series level. But recently, it seems as if that one aspect is playing more of a role than it should be in determining what drivers will run up front and even win races. Monday’s Wurth 400 at the Dover Motor Speedway highlighted what has been going on for the past year or so at the sport’s top level and that is the fact that many of the passes being made are taking place in the pits.

Martin Truex Jr. took the lead on lap 390 of 400 on ‘The Monster Mile’ after his team opted for two tires on the final pit stop while his primary challenger, Ross Chastain, received four new Goodyears from his crew. Having the lead in clean air proved to be more beneficial than having four new tires but being behind other cars. That circumstance led to the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drove on to the win.

A look at race statistics from all events held so far except for those at Daytona, Talladega, and Bristol reveals that a significant percentage of Cup Series lead changes occur under yellow as the result of pit stops. The three tracks mentioned were left out of the study because the two big drafting tracks and the dirt track are such different animals compared the other eight venues that were included in the survey.

In four of the eight races used for this piece, the winner of the race was in the car that took the lead during or immediately after the final yellow flag pit stop of the day. This was true of William Byron’s two victories at Las Vegas and Phoenix, Kyle Larson’s win at Richmond, and the aforementioned Truex triumph at Dover.

In other words, being first off pit road after a late-race caution seems to trump all other conditions as far as determining a race winner goes.

But there is more to the story than just deciding winners. Pit stop exchanges occurring during the 50 caution periods in those races accounted for 54 of the 138 lead changes to have taken place in the eight contests studied. And of course, that does not take into consideration the swapping of other positions.

Understanding that there may be more than one lead change under a particular yellow flag situation due to some cars staying out an extra lap or having to come back in a second time to serve a penalty or tighten a loose lug nut, there have been two races(Fontana & Dover) in which a double-digit number of lead changes could be attributed to passes made on pit road instead of on the track.

Obviously, the races with the fewest yellow flags saw the fewest passes during pit stops under caution. Byron’s two wins and Larson’s victory at Martinsville took place in races with five or fewer cautions resulting in less than five lead changes during those periods.

Conversely, the races with the most lead changes were very much aided by what took place on pit road. Fontana, Atlanta, Richmond, and Dover had the greatest number of lead swaps and also the most exchanges under yellow flag conditions.

The Next Gen car seemed to start off in 2022 with great promise but that has now faded as NASCAR Cup Series races have, in many instances, turned into pit stop contests held in between periods of driving around in a line at high speed.

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Why shouldn’t Ross Chastain drive the way he does?

Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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