Friday 5: How soon before trading pit crew members occurs in NASCAR?
Trading pit crew members? A formalized free agency period for tire changers, tire carriers, jackmen and fuelers? Sponsor agreements for pit crew members similar to what college athletes receive with NIL deals?
They are ideas — some radical for NASCAR — that Brian Haaland, a pit crew coach for Joe Gibbs Racing, advocates.
“I think there are so many things we can do to change the game,” Haaland told NBC Sports. “Everybody’s got contracts, and you have option years on them. I think there should be a free agency. Really. How cool would that be?
“I think there should be trades. Why not? … Why not allow me to negotiate with whatever organization if they have somebody that I want, and I’m willing to give them one of our guys — or at least talk about a trade. How fun would that be? It would another fun game within the sport.”
While other professional team sports have trades, NASCAR does not. But what if it did? Haaland said he’s proposed a trade to another team but nothing happened.
“Absolutely, I’ve tried to do it, but that’s between pit coach to pit coach,” he said. “We could work it out. It just has to be, obviously, people that are above me and above other pit coaches to sign off on it, but it could absolutely happen.
“It could happen tomorrow. If we agreed to release somebody and (another team) agreed to release somebody, and we just took their guy. It could happen.”
Imagine a trade deadline during the Cup season similar to what happens in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and NHL.
Put NASCAR’s trade deadline in June, possibly around a weekend off. By that time, teams would have had more than half the regular season to assess their crew members. A trade at that point of the season also would give crew members who are moved a chance to acclimate to their new surroundings before the playoffs.
With track position critical, what happens on pit road can make the difference between a good or bad race for each team.
Lose positions on pit road and a driver will restart deeper in the field. That makes it more difficult to reach the front and increases the likelihood of being collected in an incident.
That’s why pit road has become so important. Yet, there are limited ways of gaining time. Pit guns are standardized. Joe Gibbs Racing abandoned its pit stop choreography, which was faster than the traditional way but slower when there were missteps. That leaves only pit crews as a way to have faster stops.
So teams seek college athletes to join their pit crews. They want people with athletic skills to service a car and the mindset to handle the pressure.
With the focus on pit crews, maybe a trade could prove beneficial to all involved. Haaland said he thinks trading pit crew members could be possible because “everybody kind of knows and understands each other’s needs.
“Especially in an injury case. We will reach out to (other pit crew coaches) and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this guy that could help you … and we could loan them to you.’ (Or) it might be a guy that just isn’t working out for us, and we could release them, things like that have happened.
“There’s been other times where I’m like, ‘Really could use one of their top guys,’ and offer up three guys, half-joking, but just to kind of throw it out there to see if anybody will bite on it.”
They haven’t. Yet.
As for free agency, it does take place after the end of the season in November when contracts end and pit crew members are free to change teams. Should NASCAR’s season end earlier — perhaps October — that would mean more time without cars on track. A free agency period for pit crew members could provide something for fans.
Just as key could be any other financial benefits for pit crew members. The NIL deals some college athletes receive are changing how they view their athletic options.
Haaland saw it when he talked to members of the Ohio State hockey team about a career as a NASCAR pit crew member.
“I started talking about, ‘Hey, there could be an opportunity after you’re done playing here’ and … I threw out some numbers about what they could make and they all just kind of looked at me,” he said. “Then I realized that (with) the NIL (deals), they’re probably making more than that now.”
Deals with pit crews are likely a few years away. The focus for teams is a new economic model so teams are not as reliant on sponsorship to survive. Also key will be the new media rights deal, which will begin in 2025 and is expected to provide teams with more money.
As for the notion of trading pit crew members, it is an intriguing idea to some teams but many questions remain before it happens. Maybe one day Haaland will be able to make a trade or see the concept of a formalized free agency period take place in the sport.
2. Can Fords turn it around?
The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway marks the third race on a 1.5-mile track this season without the speedway package used at Atlanta — site of Ford’s only win this year with Joey Logano.
In the previous two races on 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas and Kansas), no Ford finished no better than sixth. Austin Cindric was sixth at Las Vegas. Logano was sixth at Kansas.
Fords led 14 of 271 laps (5.1%) at Las Vegas and led nine of 267 laps (3.4%) at Kansas.
Add Fontana, California, (2-mile speedway) and Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile speedway) and Ford’s struggles remain evident.
Ford’s top car at Fontana was Kevin Harvick, who finished fifth. Fords lead 48 of 200 laps (24%) there.
Harvick led Ford with a runner-up finish at Darlington, but that came after incidents eliminated some of the leaders in the final laps. Ford placed three cars in the top six at Darlington: Harvick in second, Brad Keselowski in fourth and Harrison Burton in sixth. Fords, though, led nine of 295 laps (3.1%) in that race.
Harvick enters Sunday’s race at Charlotte third in the standings, 29 points behind series leader Ross Chastain. Harvick has four consecutive top 10s in the Coca-Cola 600, including a third-place finish in last year’s race.
Asked last weekend at North Wilkesboro about his chances of winning the regular season, Harvick said:
“I think for us our cars, I speak of the 4 team, our cars have run competitively and we’ve been in position and just haven’t knocked that door down yet,” he said. “But it’s like I keep telling them, ‘You keep knocking on that door and eventually somebody is gonna answer it.’
“We just have to keep dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s because that’s just where we are from an aerodynamic standpoint and everything that goes with our car currently.
“We just have to be able to do everything right. The cars have to be closer to perfect than the other two models currently, so we just have to keep doing the things that we’re doing.”
3. Goodyear makes changes to tires
Goodyear plans to use a new tire that is intended to wear more at New Hampshire in July. The tire was tested in late April with Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell.
Goodyear is moving in this direction after gaining experience with the Next Gen car, which runs its 50th Cup points race Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Our goal has been to provide as much grip as we think possible for individual racetracks and then let the teams and let the drivers manage that,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Sometimes we’re more conservative, sometimes we’re not.
“Now that we have a year and a half under our belt with this vehicle, with the Next Gen car, I think we have figured out that we can probably go further than maybe what we were able to do with the previous generation parts.”
That falls in line with what Denny Hamlin said after running the wet weather tires in a heat race last weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway and noting how they wore.
“I’m just more encouraged that Goodyear can build a tire that is really fast to start and falls off,” he said. “We got the blueprint. We really should spend some time working on this for other short tracks.”
Said Stucker about Hamlin’s comments: “I think Denny is spot on.”
Stucker said the goal of the New Hampshire tire test was to get the tires to wear more.
“We’re going significantly softer on both sides,” Stucker said of the tires that will be used at New Hampshire. “All the drivers at the test felt like it was a big gain, felt like it was definitely in the right direction. So, that’s what we’re going to race. Is it enough? We’ll see. I think it’s a good step, and then we’ll continue to build on that.”
The New Hampshire tire also typically is run at Richmond and Phoenix, the site of the championship race, but Stucker said that might not be the case this year.
“We just felt like (New Hampshire) can require something softer,” he said.
4. Gaining ground
Chase Elliott ranks fourth in Cup in points earned in the last five races — since his return from a leg injury suffered snowboarding.
Here’s a look at the top point scorers in Cup in the last five points races:
William Byron — 194 points
Denny Hamlin — 190
Ryan Blaney — 170
Chase Elliott — 163
Ross Chastain — 161
Martin Truex Jr. — 153
When Elliott made his return, he was 33rd in the season standings, 134 points out of what would be the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He’s climbed to 28th in the standings and is 63 points behind the final transfer spot to the playoffs with 13 races left in the regular season.
5. One year away
Kyle Larson will be preparing to run the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 at this time next year.
“It’s still so far away that it truly doesn’t seem real, I think, until I get in the car, on the ground and fire an engine up and then I think I’ll be scared,” he said with a smile. “Right now it doesn’t seem super real, but I’ve been trying to pay attention as much as possible.”
Larson spent a day earlier this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Arrow McLaren team that he’ll drive for next year. He has yet to test an IndyCar but has been fitted for a seat this month.
Next year will mark 10 years since the last driver ran in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. Kurt Busch finished sixth at Indy to earn rookie of the year honors. A blown engine at Charlotte that night left him with a 40th-place result.