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Friday 5: Is a Cup crew chief’s place still atop the pit box?

Kim Coon, Kyle Petty, and Dustin Long preview what to expect when the Cup drivers take to the dirt for the third time at Bristol, with Petty saying he expects to see aggression and Long predicting chaos.

Denny Hamlin sees a day “not far” in the future when a crew chief doesn’t go to the track but calls the race from the team’s race shop. Brad Keselowski says such a moment would just be a part of the sport’s evolution.

As technology improves, teams invest more in remote access and track crew limits remain, the sport is moving closer to a day when a crew chief — or the person assigned to calling a team’s strategy — doesn’t have to be at the track for a race or even a weekend.

The question, some say, is who will be the first to do so. This weekend’s race on the dirt at Bristol would have been a good time to have done so — rain is in the forecast Friday and Sunday’s race features non-competitive pit stops during stage breaks — but no Cup teams plan to purposely keep their crew chiefs at home.

Having a crew chief work from the team’s race shop for even a couple of races would give them extra time to focus on upcoming races, reduce the wear and tear of travel in a 38-weekend schedule and be similar to what teams are doing for road crew members to give them a break.

Rodney Childers, who is in his 19th season as a Cup crew chief, admits that he is not ready to leave the track to work from the shop voluntarily. He had to do so last year when he was suspended four races after the rear deck lid on Kevin Harvick’s car was modified and came away impressed with what can be done remotely.

“It was eye-opening last year,” Childers said of working from the team’s race shop during his suspension. “I could do it from the war room every week and not have a single issue.”

Hamlin said that crew chief Chris Gabehart experienced similar feelings when he served a four-race suspension last year and worked remotely.

“When Gabehart sat out, he said that he actually had a better view of all the information and technology,” Hamlin said.

Tom Gray was a longtime engineer for crew chief Alan Gustafson at the track before moving to a role in performance development at Hendrick Motorsports that kept him at the shop.

After working races this season at the shop, Gray was pressed into interim crew chief duties for Josh Berry when Gustafson was suspended, along with the other Hendrick crew chiefs, for modifications discovered to hood louvers last month at Phoenix.

Gray says that what can be done from the shop is getting closer to what a crew chief can do do at the track during the race.

“The streams and network connectivity here make it so that when you’re back there in the war room, honestly, it’s pretty good,” Gray said. “It’s not a huge departure from being at the track.”

Gray said he doesn’t think the sport is far away from having a crew chief work remotely instead of going to a race. He also said that working from the shop during races provides a good training ground for engineers, the position most likely to be promoted to fill crew chief openings.

“I will say this about the war room, the learning curve for those engineers in terms of the feel and atmosphere of being at the track is that much quicker,” Gray said. “You’re pretty immersed when you’re in it.”

With more engineers working remotely since NASCAR rules limit how many crew members can be at the track, the next generation of crew chiefs works away from the track. Will they feel more comfortable working at the shop during a race instead of on the pit box should they become a crew chief?

Even as technology makes working at the race shop more feasible during an event, it can’t replace everything, some say.

“I really feel like there’s a value to the face-to-face interaction to being there, to looking at the tires, to sensing the driver’s comment,” Michael Nelson, vice president of operations at Team Penske and a former Cup crew chief, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan.

Nelson is not alone in that thinking.

Keith Rodden was an engineer and crew chief before joining the Motorsports Competition strategy group at General Motors. He left that position to be Austin Dillon’s crew chief this season. Even though he’s experienced races remotely, he’s more in favor of being at the track as a crew chief.

“I think if I had been sitting in the shop (for the race at Circuit of the Americas) … I would have gotten the strategy wrong because I wasn’t there, seeing, feeling, ingrained in it,” Rodden said. “I was the one talking to Austin.”

If he was working from the shop, he would have had to send messages to the person on the radio with Dillon to ask specific questions to get his feedback instead of talking directly to him.

“I think, as a crew chief, you need to be there all the time for your guys,” Rodden said.

Some say that while it’s fine to rotate mechanics and engineers at the track to give them a weekend off, it’s not as good to do that with crew chiefs because of how closely they work with the driver.

Keselowski said he could make it work.

“I’m comfortable with whatever makes me more successful,” he said. “If that makes us more successful, then I’ll get comfortable fast.”

2. NASCAR reacts

It’s no surprise that NASCAR made changes to the Rule Book on Thursday after the confusing actions by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel in separate appeals recently.

NASCAR had to do something.

The notion that NASCAR could penalize a team only to see the appeals panel issue its own form of justice stripped NASCAR of some of its power and left the garage trying to figure out the mixed messages being sent.

The appeals panel ruled that Hendrick Motorsports had modified hood louvers, violating the rule. The issue was discovered before practice last month at Phoenix.

But the panel rescinded the penalties of 100 points and 10 playoff points to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson and all four Hendrick teams, while keeping the four-race suspensions and $100,000 fines to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs.

“We were surprised, as I think a lot of the fans were in the ruling on the Hendrick (matter), taking away points,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer.

The sport was left to try to understand what the decision meant since the panel was not required to explain its decision.

Then this week, a different three-person appeals panel ruled that Kaulig Racing violated the rule in modifying a hood louver at Phoenix but reduced the point penalty from 100 to 75 points while keeping the four-race suspension and $100,000 fine to the team’s crew chief intact. Again, no explanation was given.

Thursday, NASCAR made changes to rein in the appeals panel. Now, if the panel agrees with NASCAR that a rule was violated, the panel can not rescind a penalty as it did by giving back the 100 points and 10 playoffs points to the Hendrick drivers and teams. Now, the appeal panel can only reduce a penalty to the minimal amount in the Rule Book. For the Hendrick violation, that would have been 75 points and 10 playoff points.

Also, NASCAR changed its Rule Book to note that the panel must provide an explanation for its decision.

“We felt it was prudent for the appeals panel to have to explain why and sign off on that going forward for the transparency in the industry and the fans as well,” O’Donnell said.

One thing to note, both Kaulig Racing and Denny Hamlin, who lost his appeal Thursday, can appeal their decisions to the Final Appeal Officer. Kaulig Racing will do so. Hamlin said on his Actions Detrimental podcast Thursday that he would not.

O’Donnell said both cases would not fall under Thursday’s rule changes because their matters had started the appeal process before the changes.

O’Donnell also said Thursday that NASCAR will again display parts that are illegal beginning this weekend at Bristol so teams can see what violated the rules. NASCAR used to do that but then went away from that to avoid embarrassing teams. O’Donnell said NASCAR’s mindset has changed.

“As we’ve looked at this new car, as we’ve looked at what we need to do to really change the culture in the garage, we hear from the media, we hear from the fans, is NASCAR hiding the ball?” O’Donnell said. “No. We can easily display (the illegal parts). There’s nothing for us to hide.”

3. 2024 Scheduling

It appears that NASCAR will be returning to Circuit of the Americas next season.

That’s just one of a few questions looking ahead to next year’s schedule.

Speedway Motorsports rents the track to host the NASCAR weekend at the Austin, Texas, road course and there’s an option to hold the event there in 2024.

Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, hinted Thursday that the plan was to return to that track next year.

“I think Austin is a great market for NASCAR,” Smith said in response to a question from NBC Sports. “COTA is a world-class facility. I think it’s great for NASCAR. I think it’s great for us to be there. So we’re moving forward with COTA and looking forward to working with them in the future.”

Another key question is what will be the future of the Bristol Dirt race. This will be the third running of the event and the second time it has been held at night on Easter.

“Looking into next year, I can tell you that we’re starting to look at the calendar,” Smith said. “I think it’s been a success when you consider the challenges that we’ve had. We sold more tickets this year going into this weekend than we had last year. Really pleased with that.”

Another question is about the street course race in Chicago. The city elected a new mayor Tuesday in Brandon Johnson. During a March 2 interview with NBC 5 in Chicago, Johnson was asked about if he would allow the NASCAR race and Lollapalooza to keep going as contracted.

“I would have to look at those contracts,” Johnson said in the interview. “That’s going to be important. But what I can say is moving forward under my administration, decisions that are made for the city of Chicago have to be made in a collective, collaborative way.

“That’s the type of leader that I am and have been as a teacher and an organizer and a Cook County Commissioner. You have to be collaborative. You have to be competent and compassionate. These are the characteristics I bring to the (city) and I’m looking to have people who work alongside of me to have the same characteristics.”

NASCAR’s contract with Chicago calls for the event to be held in 2023-25. NASCAR may request to extend the deal through 2027.

The city of Chicago can terminate the agreement “at any time for convenience by providing NASCAR with prior written notice at least 180 days prior to the next Event. NASCAR shall not be entitled to any compensation or expectation damages due to termination by the District.”

4. Different reactions

As the series returns to Bristol for this weekend’s dirt race, a key moment is recalled: Chase Briscoe’s banzai move to try to pass Tyler Reddick for the lead on the last lap. Briscoe not only spun but hit Reddick and spun him, allowing Kyle Busch to pass both and score his only Cup victory of last season.

While Ross Chastain faces scrutiny over some of his moves, time has passed on Briscoe’s and few bring it up. Admittedly, it helped that he and Reddick shook hands after the race and Reddick said, “It’s all good.”

So why the different reaction between Briscoe and Reddick compared to what others feel for Chastain?

“For me, looking back on that race, yeah I wish the ending would have been different – not only me, but also for Tyler,” Briscoe said. “Obviously it’s worked out for Tyler – he’s had four wins since then.

“I think the only reason why I didn’t get a black eye after that race was because it was a dirt guy I did the move to. If it was someone who wasn’t a Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Christopher Bell or Tyler Reddick in the field, I’m probably getting a black eye.

“But all four of those guys understood where that move was coming from. Even Tyler said he would have done the exact same thing, because that’s just what you do in those situations when you grew up dirt racing.”

5. Cautions on the decline

Although four of the first seven Cup races have gone to overtime this season, cautions are down compared to this point last year.

The first seven races this year are in the same order as the first seven races last year.

Cautions are down 28.1% this year compared to this time last season.

Cautions have been down in five of the seven races compared to last year. The only races that saw an increase of cautions this year compared to last year are the Daytona 500 (one more caution this year than last year) and last weekend’s race at Richmond (three more cautions than last).

The decline is not surprising because last year marked the first season with the Next Gen car. Drivers and teams struggled with the handling, leading to many accidents in races and even some in practice and qualifying. Teams have made the cars more stable, and drivers have become accustomed to the car’s nuances.