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Loose wheel debate continues: ‘We don’t need drivers getting hurt . . . tires in the stands’

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500

BRISTOL, TN - APRIL 17: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 ditech Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2016 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

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A Sprint Cup championship crew chief said NASCAR’s loose wheel phenomenon was “the worst I’d seen” at Bristol Motor Speedway and cautioned about safety risks for competitors and fans.

“Hopefully it gets a little more under control as we go along here,” Rodney Childers, who guided Kevin Harvick to the 2014 title, told The Morning Drive during a Wednesday interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We don’t need drivers getting hurt. We don’t need tires in the stands and anything else. So hopefully, it gets a little bit better.”

Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. were among the contenders who had trouble with loose wheels in Sunday’s Food City 500, prompting renewed debate about the practice of hitting fewer than five lug nuts to gain position with a quicker pit stop.

Executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said NASCAR would discuss the issue at an upcoming competition meeting with teams.

In moving to a remote system of monitoring stops that reduced the number of officials present in the pits last year, NASCAR stopped penalizing teams that elected to tighten fewer than five lug nuts on a tire.

Asked if NASCAR should return to policing the practice, Childers said teams initially handled the transition well.

“It was kind of nice when that part went away and teams did their thing and went on with it,” he said. “The teams did a good job with it. Now, honestly, the teams aren’t doing a good job with it. The teams have made it out of control. Somebody will have to step in and say something or do something to fix it, but it’s not NASCAR’s fault. It’s not NASCAR’s problem. It’s the teams’ problem.

“It’s one of those risk vs. reward things. We’re going to have to work through it together.”

Childers has erred on the side of caution with Harvick, who virtually qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a victory last month at Phoenix International Raceway. While the No. 4 pit crew hasn’t been affected by loose wheels, playing it safe has resulted in often being beat out of the pits.

“I guess you could call it a sensitive subject, to be honest,” Childers said. “We’ve tried to play the conservative route, and the bad thing is we’ve played the conservative route and not had loose wheels, but when we get beat off pit road, we get crucified for it. That’s something that’s a team choice.

“If you want to take a chance on having to come back down pit road all the time and have loose wheels and give races away that way, it’s just as big of a risk getting beat off pit road. There’s been a lot of talk around here. I actually had a good practice with my guys yesterday. We tried it, just go as fast as you can and see how many (lug nuts) you have loose, and it’s up to me to decide if it’s worth it at that particular time in the race.”

Childers believes there are some instances in which missing lug nuts never are worth the risk to a team.

“If you’ve got a seventh-place car, there’s no reason to take these chances every time you come down pit road,” he said. “Put four tires on it, don’t make mistakes and try to get a top 10. There are so many people with all these loose wheels, I don’t understand it myself. But on the other hand, if you don’t beat everyone off pit road these days, you’re not going to win the race. We’ve already given away a couple of races because of situations like that. We’ve had cars good enough to win races, and we’re going to have to take more chances.”

During a separate interview Wednesday morning on SiriusXM, Logano said he had reviewed his Bristol stop and concluded it wasn’t human error that caused his loose wheel but might have been because of the forces generated by the high-banked 0.533-mile oval.

“It looks (the tire changer) did a very good job of putting the wheel on and hitting the lugnuts,” Logano said. “I didn’t see anything wrong with that. Bristol is a tough place with a lot of vibrations and things are shaking. We got aggressive with four or five lug nuts. It’s a question we have every time we go there. We know the speed gain is there. We have to figure out the little minor details.”

Does Logano prefer having five lug nuts or fewer?

“That is not my call,” he said with a laugh. “I drive the car. Those guys live it. They live pit stops. (Crew chief) Todd (Gordon) knows what is going on there. If I focus on that, I wouldn’t be able to drive the race car as well as I do. When it comes to decisions like that, I’m not involved with them.”