Big-name drivers making big-time gaffes
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine how different the Daytona 500 might have been had Dale Earnhardt Jr. not pitted outside of his box. He wouldn't have been a lap down, which means he wouldn't have been racing Brian Vickers to get back on the lead lap, which means he wouldn't have caused a 10-car pileup that took Kyle Busch and other top contenders out of the race.
Imagine how different the second race at California might have been had Greg Biffle not slid through his pit box and run over his air hose during a late stop. The fastest car on the track went from battling Jeff Gordon for the lead to 12th on the final restart and opened the door for Matt Kenseth to win for the second straight week.
Imagine how different last weekend's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway might have been had Gordon not approached pit road too fast, locked up his brakes and blown a tire on a late stop. Instead of rallying from a poor restart position to finish sixth, he would have been fighting Busch for the win.
Pit-road mistakes have marred the first three weeks of the Sprint Cup Series. Not just the ones that lead to penalties by NASCAR. Mental mistakes. Silly mistakes. Lack-of-concentration mistakes. Mistakes that have had a major impact on the race finish and point standings.
And they're happening to veterans, not rookies who don't know better.
Were it not for the above mistakes, the winners of the first three races could be entirely different. Busch, who had the dominant car, might have won Daytona. Earnhardt might have made a run at it, too.
Biffle was so convinced he had the car to beat at California that he tongue-in-cheek suggested he should be fired for his snafu. Had Gordon not gotten so anxious coming to pit road, Busch might not have had the opportunity to become the first to win from the back of the field.
"Pressure's on," said Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte. "There are risks these drivers are going to have to take on pit road. Greg Biffle didn't slide through his pits at California on a whim. Greg slid through because he knew whoever came out first or second had a good chance of winning."
Vegas was crazier than most. There were 28 pit-road penalties in the Cup race after only 21 in the first two races. There were another 32 in the Nationwide Series race.
Many of those can be attributed to an unusually high number of wrecks and engine failures, the latter attributed to higher rpms created by the new tire. The most common penalty comes when a driver enters pit road before it opens, and that happens after a crash or engine failure.
The overall number of penalties through the first three races is 49, the same as last season. But if you dig further, you'll see a higher number of penalties other than entering a closed pit road, which suggests that drivers are taking more chances.
There have been 12 speeding penalties, up seven from last season. Nine of those came at Vegas.
There have been seven lug-nut violations, compared to none in 2008. That can be explained simply: NASCAR changed the rule to lengthen the amount of exposed stud thread because teams were pushing the rule to the point that safety was an issue. Teams are still adjusting.
But it's the mental mistakes, the ones that don't show up on the NASCAR report, that are having the biggest impact.
Nobody has been immune. Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson slid through his stall at Vegas.
"The cars are really, really close, and you gotta take advantage of whatever you can," Earnhardt said. "The rules on pit road, some are very cut-and-dried, some are very harsh. Some are very lenient.
"So there is all kinds of little things going on pit road and you just gotta try and take advantage of wherever there is a window, and sometimes you are going to make a mistake doin' it."
A lot at stake
Gordon was in control with 37 laps to go in the 2004 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, then the next-to-last race of the Chase. He'd led a race-high 155 laps, easily holding off Johnson and Mark Martin.
Then, on the final pit stop, he ran over the air hose.
The mistake cost his team valuable seconds on pit road. The four-time Cup champion went from first to seventh. Sure victory turned into a hard-fought third.
Had Gordon won, he would have scored an additional 15 points and trailed Kurt Busch by six entering the last race. He finished third in the final standings by 16 points, and who knows what would have happened had the prerace spread been tighter.
"That could have cost us a championship," said Letarte, then the rear-tire carrier for Gordon's team.
One of these early mistakes could cost somebody the 2009 title, or at least a spot in the 12-driver Chase. And the mistakes don't have to cost a victory. They could be the difference between finishing 10th instead of fifth.
It's just people being aggressive, and I'm guilty of that as well. We had a little bit of confusion on the radio when I slipped through my stall.” -- Jimmie Johnson
"It's just like our race at Las Vegas," Kevin Harvick said. "We come in, the caution comes out. We ran solidly in the top-10, top-five throughout the day. The next thing you know, you're fighting for your life to get the Lucky Dog."
A speeding penalty on Lap 220 didn't help.
"It just takes one mistake or one circumstance or whatever the case may be to change everything that you're doing," said Harvick, who finished 12th at Vegas. "All of a sudden, you're trying to play catch-up instead of trying to keep your track position."
Speeding penalties are the most frustrating for drivers because they have nobody but themselves to blame. That NASCAR gives a 5 mph window makes it more frustrating. That speeding is up in the first three races indicates how valuable drivers believe track position is.
"Over the last five years, my team, and everybody around me, has pushed me more to concentrate on tryin' to maximize my opportunity with pit-road speed," Earnhardt said. "You look at how to get on pit road faster, how to exit pit road faster. There is all kinds of little things that you are tryin' to do now that you weren't as serious [about] a couple of years ago."
Earnhardt pushed it far enough to earn a pass-through penalty when called for speeding on Lap 50 at Vegas.
"You are tryin' to do all these things now because they make such a big difference on pit road and how it relates to the racetrack," said NASCAR's most popular driver, 29th in points.
There were 13 speeding penalties in the Nationwide race at Vegas. Cup driver Denny Hamlin had to make consecutive pass-through penalties because he was caught speeding on his first penalty.
"Everybody is aggressive right now, it seems like, and putting themselves at risk," said crew chief Pat Tryson, whose driver (Kurt Busch) was among those speeding at Vegas. "You just have to decide that instead of pushing it by 3 mph, maybe you have to go 2½ mph.
"You just have to cut yourself some room."
Speeding penalties have been on the rise since 2005, when NASCAR went from officials holding a stopwatch to electronic scoring sensors that measure the speed from the start of pit road until the end.
They were added because the competitors wanted them.
"They said, 'Look, we don't want a system where a guy up there with a stopwatch timing me determines a race. We want a system that treats everybody the same,'" Cup series director John Darby said. "The old system with a handheld clock you could get maybe a dozen cars."
What happened at Vegas may have been an anomaly because it is so difficult to slow down coming off Turn 4 before the pit entrance. But it was that way in 2008 and there were only four speeding penalties.
"I think you'll see teams working on pit-road entry and exit and maybe even validating their speed on pit road, and trying to get a better understanding of where the timing lines are getting in and off, because it's so easy to get caught," Johnson said.
Greed versus common sense
Biffle was mad -- seething mad. Not at anybody on his team, but himself.
"I just screwed it up," he said after sliding through his pit at California. "Trying to get greedy."
Greed is a good word. More than ever, drivers are doing all they can to pick up spots on pit road. That has led to mistakes, many by those who should know better.
"It's just unfortunate that it has happened to us as much as it has, but I think that is just the nature of the sport," said Earnhardt's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. "The cars are more equal and more competitive than they have ever been. We have had a couple of rule changes on pit road as far as stud lengths and stuff like that, so every second on pit road is getting more valuable and track position becomes more important.
"It's a sign of everybody trying real hard."
"It's just people being aggressive, and I'm guilty of that as well," he said. "We had a little bit of confusion on the radio when I slipped through my stall."
Sometimes it's a lack of focus. Earnhardt admitted he wasn't paying proper attention when he drove past his pit box at Daytona.
One also has to remember that there aren't timeouts or breaks as there are in other sports. Drivers don't have a halftime to rest their mind and body for a few minutes.
"To have somebody with their intensity level that high for that long, it's hard to think of another sport that has that," Letarte said. "We have three- and four-hour races. One mistake and you're done."
Doug Yates, co-owner of Yates Racing, believes some of it is just early-season jitters.
"It's been interesting to see some uncharacteristic things going on," he said. "Like Jimmie Johnson having issues. It's the same way with setups and engines. We've all got to get racing and get in a rhythm."
Whatever it is, the races and standings are being impacted.
Chances are the championship will be as well.
"You can't just have the best car," Letarte said. "You have to have a pit-road speed that is closest to the limit. You have to have a pit crew that is the fastest. You cannot relax [at] any state of the sport. If you do, they're gonna drive right by you."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.