Best of Gen 6: Acknowledging the era’s best pit strategists
From the start of the 2013 season to the close of last month’s finale in Phoenix, the NASCAR Cup Series experienced the era of the Gen 6 car. With this chapter of stock car racing at its bittersweet end — and a new one beginning with the introduction of the Next Gen car in 2022 — NBC Sports is spending this month looking back on the best individual performances across the last nine years.
What makes a good pit strategist?
It’s natural that we recall the moments in which perceived gambles succeeded or failed, but the entirety of a crew chief’s strategy outlay — the bigger sample size — is how we should discern whether a strategist was one of the best across the Gen 6 era.
Recorded by Motorsports Analytics, each crew chief holds a position retention rate, or more informally, the rate in which his team defended positions during green-flag pit cycles. These stops under green are vulnerable moments that feature more positional changes than caution-flag stops. They also allow the crew chief a choice on the timing of said stop within the pit window. And some, as you’ll read, are far better at timing stops than others.
While retention and positional gains are easier to obtain the deeper in the field you go — there’s less to lose, after all — crew chiefs near the front of the field aim to join what we’ll refer to as the “60/60 club,” noting 60% retention when pitting under green and 60% retention when pitting under green after relinquishing a top-five spot, where the series average is annually around 50%.
The 60/60 mark was hit 27 times in the last nine years by 15 different crew chiefs. Four of them were included among our best six of the Gen 6 era:
Pearn might’ve been the best crew chief, full stop, of the Gen 6 era. He was certainly the only four-time member of the 60/60 club, proof that his skills as a strategist were on par with his ability to conjure speed from a race car.
Each season from 2016-19, Pearn defended the running position of Martin Truex Jr. on over 60% of green-flag pit cycles while also boasting at least a 60% retention rate when relinquishing a top-five spot. Note that this four-year span began before the implementation of stages, suggesting Pearn was a stout defender of his driver’s track position regardless of points implications.
But stage racing yielded to Pearn immediate dividends for successfully protecting front-running spots. In 2017, the first year in which points were awarded for stage finishes, Truex won 18 of a possible 53 stages during the regular season. Bonus points from those stage wins helped build a 20-point buffer at the start of the playoffs, the biggest such gap of the stage racing era until Kyle Larson’s 28-point cushion this year.
It’s hard enough for a crew chief like Pearn, who routinely had one of the fastest cars in the Cup Series at his disposal, to keep hold of positions near the front of the field. Lacking that elite speed hangs a higher degree of difficulty on the task. That’s what makes Ives’ performance during the Gen 6 era so impressive.
While the Hendrick Motorsports crew chief made it into the 60/60 club in each of his last three seasons calling races on behalf of Alex Bowman, his team’s year-end speed rankings from 2019-21 were 15th, ninth and 10th.
The timing and output from those green-flag pit stops were cumulatively good. But in isolation, Ives’ best efforts were common denominators in Bowman’s best results, including this season’s wins at Richmond (nine positions earned from the race’s final three green-flag pit cycles) and Pocono (6 positions earned across two cycles).
The inclusion of Stevens on this list might be tough for some Kyle Busch fans to swallow, specifically because the crew chief’s misses — like Phoenix in 2018 and last year’s race on the Roval — are instantly memorable, more so than his hits. But the two-time title-winner landed in the 60/60 club three times during the Gen 6 era, with his latest serving as a redemption for his worst season.
Joe Gibbs Racing separated Stevens and Busch after a 2020 campaign that brought just one win — coming after they’d already been eliminated from title contention — and a 43.75% retention of top-five running positions, the worst mark of Stevens’ career, coinciding with a year in which races were heavily decided by pit strategy. This season, on behalf of Christopher Bell, his output returned to normal, keeping hold of his driver’s top spots 60% of the time while proving Busch’s perennially strong pit-in/pit-out times weren’t the only factor in the team’s steady performance on green-flag pit stops.
Before the 2020 season, Johnston was one of the best position defenders on pit road, working on behalf of Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing and finishing three years — 2017-19 — at our 60/60 benchmark. The 2017 season served as his high-water effort, with an overall retention rate of 78.57% that yielded an additional 51 positions on the racetrack. Coupled with Larson’s own passing ability, this was a team deep on offense but lacking in speed.
But the 2020 season brought a host of problems to CGR’s No. 42 team, with the crew chief’s output being one of them. On behalf of Larson and Matt Kenseth, Johnston retained position on just 50% of green-flag pit cycles, losing a combined 86 positions on the track. He lost his job later that year.
Despite how his tenure ended, Johnston did prove valuable for the majority of the Gen 6 era, a feat deserving of recognition based on the totality of his strategy-based gains.
Gabehart never made it into the 60/60 club, but in all three years as Denny Hamlin’s crew chief, his was the first name on the list of those who just missed out, turning in overall and top-five position retention rates of 67% and 59% in 2019, 64% and 58% in 2020 and 59% and 57% this season.
In addition to his body of work, he delivered big moments in isolation: He earned Hamlin 11 spots on the final three green-flag pit cycles en route to a win at Texas in 2019; a two-tire call later that year in Phoenix helped clinch Hamlin a win and a Championship 4 spot; and his decision to long-pit the final stage this year at Darlington resulted in a Southern 500 victory.
Owens, on behalf of Richard Petty Motorsports and then JTG Daugherty Racing, pitted under green from a top-five spot just once since 2014. But despite the lack of track position during these pit cycles, he habitually made a positive impact for drivers like Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ryan Preece.
From 2014-21, Owens’ calls under green contributed to a 442-position gain on the racetrack, the highest net of any other crew chief across the time period. From 2017-18 specifically, he earned 240 spots while submitting retention rates as high as 82.61% on behalf of Buescher and 77.47% across the two seasons combined.