By Steve Mickey
Sunday morning in the pits at Bristol Motor Speedway before the running of the Food City 500, it was apparent that the race’s outcome could come down to a lug nut or two. Ever since NASCAR gave the green light to the teams to use their own judgment on how many lug nuts that they wanted to use, teams began to roll the dice on using four instead of the standard five to try and shave some time off of their pit stops.
Bristol’s high-banked half-mile track produces 15 second laps so every second saved during a green flag pit stop can save a driver as much as a quarter lap once the driver returns to the track. Unscheduled green flag pit stops at Bristol results in a driver going down at least one lap and in most cases two laps.
Bristol is the only track on the entire schedule that utilizes pits on both the front and backstretches and with it comes a very unique pitting system that is used during pit stops made under caution. Regardless of where a driver’s pit is located, all drivers must enter the pits off turn two on the backstretch and exit at turn one at the end of the front stretch. Each driver must keep pit road speed, so drivers that pit on the backstretch are actually pulling out of their pit stalls before some of the cars reach their pit stalls on the front stretch.
Since NASCAR keeps the playing field as even as possible with their unique pitting procedures at the track, it is left up to the crew chief to get creative in finding ways to cut down on the time that their driver spends in the pit. On Sunday, the creativity came in the form of four lug nuts being glued to the rim of each tire instead of the standard five.
While I was in the pits in the hours leading up to the waving of the green flag, I found myself going around to the individual teams and actually counting the lug nuts on the rims in their pits. It was the talk of the garage area and I was not alone in my math skills being used to count to four or in a few rare cases five.
Joe Gibbs Racing had all four of its teams of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and race winner Carl Edwards using only four lug nuts. The majority of teams that I saw followed the strategy of the Gibbs’ teams and went with four but there were a few that opted to put on all five. It was definitely a roll of the dice and as I talked to some of the crew members from Greg Biffle’s team, they received word that were to glue the fifth lug nut on to the nine sets of tires that they had already prepared with four lug nuts. A crew member told me that this wasn’t anything unusual as the strategy seemed to change race to race and in some cases like Sunday morning it could change just prior to the start of a race.
What happens during a pit stop is that not every tire changer gets all five lug nuts tight during the frantic activity of a pit stop. If the tire changer only misses one he still has four which is enough to secure the tire but the trouble comes when the team is using only four and the tire changer misses one leaving only three secured which is not enough to keep the tire from working its way loose.
That was the case on Sunday, as time after time drivers reported loose tires. The lucky ones were able to come back down pit road and change tires but not every driver was that lucky as some ended up in the outside retaining wall before they could come down pit road.
It’s only a lug nut but it was obvious on Sunday at Bristol just how important that one lug nut can be. The gamble to use one will be there every race day for crew chiefs but on Sunday Carl Edwards drove his Toyota to victory lane with only four lug nuts. It now becomes risk vs. reward and as long as four can get you to victory lane, it becomes easy for a crew chief to make the call to put on four.
Event: Toyota Owners 400
Track: Richmond International Raceway (0.75 mile oval, 14o degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: April 24, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kurt Busch