With more cars on the lead lap, Sprint Cup racing presents greater challenges

Last Saturday night’s Southern 500 finished in regulation time. Denny Hamlin won by almost two seconds. And only 18 cars finished on the lead lap – just the third time this year that fewer than 20 cars have been on the led lap at the end. It was all rather tame by 2010 standards.


Some perspective is in order. Nine times in the first 10 runnings of the Southern 500 the winner lapped the field. It wasn’t until 1980 that as many as five cars finished on the lead lap in a 500-miler at Darlington, and not until 1995 that as many as 10 did.


There are many reasons for the dramatic increase in the number of cars finishing on the lead lap in recent years, including greater parity. There was also the introduction of the “Lucky Dog” rule in 2003. But since double-file restarts and the wave-around provision were implemented in the middle of last season, the number of lead-lap cars has really spiked. That, combined with frequent “overtime” finishes, has altered the dynamics of Cup racing, particularly in the closing laps. Here are three recent illustrations of NASCAR’s new math at work.


The pitfalls of pit calls


You don’t always have to wait until the end to see the strategic implications of the new rules. Two weeks ago, at Richmond, Kyle Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, faced a critical decision before the halfway mark. Busch had lapped all but seven cars when the caution came out on lap 172 of 400. Busch, the eventual winner, could have kept most of the field a lap down, but Rogers decided to bring his driver in for fresh tires. That granted “wave-around” status to 19 of the lapped cars. “If we stay out, we keep all those guys down,” Rogers said. “But then the seven guys behind us (on the lead lap) are going to drive by us.”


That’s because the remaining cars on the lead lap could have pitted for tires, giving them a leg up on Busch. In short, said Rogers, “I didn't think keeping those cars a lap down was going to help us win the race.”


It will be interesting to see how a similar situation plays out during the Chase, when putting one or more rivals a lap down might afford more big-picture value than winning the race.


4 tires + 3 restarts = 1st place


At Martinsville in March, crew chief Mike Ford and driver Denny Hamlin shocked many observers by pitting for tires and dropping from first to eighth place on a green-white-checkered restart. Conventional wisdom holds that the leader never pits that late. But winning in 2010 sometimes requires unconventional wisdom. Turned out there wasn’t one green-white-checkered restart but three. And that allowed Hamlin and his fresh tires to regain the lead. “If it was still the old days, where you had one attempt at the green-white-checkered, (we) would have stayed out,” Ford said. “I was thinking, 'OK, the possibility of more cautions is there on the restarts. We can get two or three spots (per) restart and come out with this.' So it's a pretty complex decision.”


The also-rans are also in the running


With so many drivers staying on the lead lap until the end, and so many races running extra laps, there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Dover, the next stop on the Cup tour, used to be notorious for runaway races. Not anymore. Look what happened last September. On the surface, it looked like an old-fashioned blowout, with Jimmie Johnson leading 271 of 400 laps. But Johnson had to survive five double-file restarts in the race’s second half. Those restarts helped keep 19 cars on the lead lap, including the 17 of Matt Kenseth, who rallied to finish third. “I kept getting in the proper lane on restarts and my car would run for two laps, and I'd get two or three spots,” Kenseth said.


And he made Johnson sweat. “I didn’t see him all day long,” Johnson said, “and then he showed up at the end. And I thought, Aw-oh.”


Expect a lot more Aw-ohs before this year is over.


 


NEXT RACE Autism Speaks 400, Dover International Speedway


THE LOWDOWN For the first time since 1986 Dover comes before Charlotte on the spring schedule. Why the shuffle? “With Memorial Day falling on May 31, June becomes very crowded, and we felt it was better to make this one-time move and preserve our position as the first race in the Northeast,” said Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports Inc. The result is a brutal back-to-back, as the Sprint Cup troupe goes directly from the Track to Tough to Tame to the Monster Mile.


 


PAST WINNERS


2009 Jimmie Johnson


2008   Kyle Busch


2007   Martin Truex Jr.


2006   Matt Kenseth


2005   Greg Biffle


 


ABOUT: Dover


TRACK: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.), 1.0-mile paved oval


RACE LENGTH: 400 laps, 400 miles


FIRST RACE: 1969


SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup


 


Quote of note


“I think it’s a very realistic goal.” – Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, on the chances that his car owner, Chip Ganassi, can also win the Indy 500 this year.


 


Where to watch


Sunday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at noon EDT, followed by race coverage at 1:15.


 


ONE TO WATCH: Denny Hamlin


WHY HE MATTERS: First driver to score weekend sweep at Darlington since 1993.


WHAT HE SAYS: “We’re just hitting that stride.”


WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: Dover, where his average finish is 25.1, will test that stride.


 


 


UP TO SPEED


 


Going the distance


As noted in “NASCAR’s New Math,” finishing on the lead lap in a Sprint Cup race isn’t quite the accomplishment it once was. Still, a long-term record of lead-lap finishes remains a good indicator of a driver’s strength at a particular track. That’s certainly the case at Dover; twice in the last three years just six cars have finished on the lead lap in a Cup race at the Monster Mile. That makes the career batting average of Carl Edwards that much more impressive (see chart).


 


Don’t count the incumbent out


The Sprint Cup season is like an election: a long, grinding campaign, full of ups and downs, that ends in November. But despite Jimmie Johnson’s struggles in the South Carolina primary (aka the Southern 500), it would be foolish to write the four-time defending champion off just yet. Yes, Johnson’s DNF at Darlington was his third of 2010. But he’s still second in points, and he’s tied with Southern 500 winner Denny Hamlin with three Cup wins, most of any driver this year. “It’s still so early in the season,” Hamlin said. “We’ve got a lot of racing left to do before the Chase starts. I’m sure there's no cause for panic on (Johnson’s) side.”


 


Monster milestone


Last season Jimmie Johnson won both Cup events at Dover. It marked the 10th time that a driver had pulled off a season sweep at the Monster Mile, starting with David Pearson in 1973. Johnson, however, became the first to do it twice, having first accomplished the sweep in 2002.


 


WEEKLY STATS


Lead lap finishes (LLF) at Dover International Speedway*


 


RANK        DRIVER         LLF/STARTS        PCT.


1        Carl Edwards             9/11             81.8%


2        Ryan Newman           12/16      75.0%


3        Clint Bowyer             6/8              75.0%


4        Greg Biffle                10/15      66.7%


5        Tony Stewart            14/22      63.6%


6        Matt Kenseth            13/22      59.1%


7        Jeff Gordon                    20/34      58.8%


8        Jimmie Johnson              9/16             56.3%


9        Mark Martin                    25/47      53.2%


10       Kyle Busch               5/10             50.0%


11       Bobby Labonte               16/35     45.7%


12       Jeff Burton                    14/32      43.8%


13       Kurt Busch                     14/22     63.6%


14       Kevin Harvick            7/18            38.9%


15 (tie)    Denny Hamlin            3/8              37.5%


15 (tie)    Martin Truex Jr.              3/8              37.5%


17       Jamie McMurray              5/14             35.7%


18       Dale Earnhardt Jr.           7/20             35.0%


19       Kasey  Kahne           4/12            33.3%


20       A.J. Allmendinger           2/6              33.3%


*Full-time drivers with at least five career starts