AVONDALE, AZ — The four NASCAR Cup Series crew chiefs each said on the media zoom call earlier this week that pit strategy may not be much of a factor this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. They all felt that if the cautions didn’t fly in bad situations, then they should be pretty straight forward races this weekend.
See, they also felt like they had to be perfect in every aspect of the race too. You can’t get caught up in any crash damage on track. No way could you afford a slow pit stop, a speeding penalty, loose wheel’s, missing lug nuts, etc. The crew chiefs also felt like they had to be perfect on their pit calls too.
With only 1-miles of real estate to race on, you don’t have the same luxury at Phoenix than you did at Homestead to make up lost ground.
But, through the first two races of the weekend thus far, pit calls very much have decided the final outcome of the Truck Series and Xfinity Series’ races.
Brett Moffitt had the championship won in the Truck Series on Friday night. He was all but checked out from the field and trying to hold off Grant Enfinger for his second championship in three years. Enfinger, had pit earlier from sixth place for new tires. He had nothing to lose. His Truck was fading backwards and unless they went off strategy, a championship wasn’t going to be won. He gave up sixth for new tires and would restart 12th. Five laps later, he was back up to where he pit from in sixth. Then, a few laps later, he was in the top five. Then, the top three. Then, the caution came. Moffit, couldn’t afford to pit now. He had already set his path. Enfinger was there and had fresher tires. No need to pit.
Instead, the other two contenders did pit. Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith restarted eighth and ninth respectively on the final overtime restart. They’d finish the race 1-2 and show that tires and pit calls do mean something at Phoenix.
On Saturday, a similar thing occurred.
Ausitn Cindric had the best long run car. He had the best car in general. He inherited the lead after his final pit stop when a caution came out on Lap 169 for Joe Graf Jr. Justin Allgaier had to make something happen. He pit again for his final set of tires. He would get a big jump on the ensuing restart and move up to second, but Cindric was pulling away. He was just too good. The championship was in his sights.
Unfortunately, Chase Briscoe spun in Turn 4 with three laps-to-go in regulation and here we were with another pit call to set up the overtime ending. Cindric, saw what happened to Moffitt when he didn’t pit from the lead on Friday night. So, he gave the lead to Allgaier knowing that Allgaier had no new tires and also knew that only 10 cars were on the lead lap too. The worst he would restart was ninth due to Briscoe bringing out the caution and would definitely have to pit. Eight lead lap cars would end up pitting which put Cindric in third on the final restart with much fresher tires.
Now, what happens in the Cup race on Sunday? Will we be 3-for-3 for overtime finishes this weekend? So far, they’re 1-for-2 with it playing out in favor of the faster car winning.
You know not all four cars on Sunday can pit under the final caution if it does indeed happen because some have to go off strategy and put themselves in a position to win.
Also, it’s worth noting that two Stewart-Haas Racing cars across two different divisions of NASCAR won nine times each and didn’t win the championship.
Briscoe won nine times in the Xfinity Series and had a great shot at a championship but his No. 98 Ford didn’t have the handling on Saturday to compete for a win.
Kevin Harvick won nine times in the Cup Series but a rough Round of 8 has kept him from the Championship 4 and competing for a title on Sunday.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps lauded this current playoff format for these moments on Saturday when asked about it, so don’t expect any changes to come any time soon either.