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Pit losses: Mistakes on stops have saddled title contenders with tough choices in Chase

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Citizen Solider 400

DOVER, DE - OCTOBER 02: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Citizen Solider 400 at Dover International Speedway on October 2, 2016 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

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CONCORD, N.C. – Pit stops long have been a determinant in Sprint Cup race outcomes, but the 2016 playoffs have featured the flip side of the over-the-wall warriors who win races.

Execution hasn’t been the storyline as much as the errors that can spell doom even for a dominant car.

“I think now it’s certainly harder to be able to make up from those mistakes on pit road,” defending series champion Kyle Busch said Thursday after practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “There’s risk versus reward in everything we do, but pit road especially with the extra segments and timing zones.”

Since NASCAR generally doubled the timing sections at virtually all tracks three months ago, speeding penalties have spiked, and the trend has continued during the playoffs -- but with a twist.

The teams with the fastest cars also are among those making the most mistakes in the pits.

Of the 13 pit infractions committed in the Round of 16 by Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders, more than half belonged to the cars that have demonstrated the most speed during the regular season.

All four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers –Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth – committed pit penalties during the first three races of the playoffs.

But the plight of Jimmie Johnson has been most indicative of the immense downside of pushing the pit limits with a stronger car. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet has been faster since the playoffs started, but his finishes aren’t reflecting it because of two costly penalties.

He led a race-high 118 of 270 laps at Chicagoland Speedway but was 12th after speeding while exiting on a stop with 36 laps remaining. At Dover International Speedway, he led 90 laps after taking the lead from winner Martin Truex Jr. just before halfway but finished a lap down in seventh when his crew was penalized for going over the wall too soon.

Truex has said Johnson’s car virtually was equal to his before serving a pass-through punishment. It highlights the thin line between gaining a spot that could mean a win and advancement to the next round, or a disastrous penalty that could mean elimination.

While there has been increased chatter about whether drivers should embrace “points racing” -- essentially playing it safe for top-10 finishes instead of going for broke.

But Johnson’s Dover punishment raises another vexing question: Should pit crews also be erring on the more conservative side?

“No, I don’t even want to think about that stuff,” Edwards said with a grimace when asked about it. “Everybody just has to go do their jobs the best they can, and you can’t give up any speed. It’s so competitive that (if) you a lose a spot or two on pit road being conservative, at the end of the day, (that) could be as bad as being fast and just having one bad pit stop.”

With Saturday’s Bank of America 500 starting the Round of 12, the competitiveness also is expected to ratchet up with four fewer contenders.

“You can’t be conservative I guess is the short answer,” Edwards said. “With less people, and arguably faster people, there’s less room to give up any spots. The 12 guys racing for these eight (transfer) spots could be first through 12th in finishing order in these first two races.

“If you’re a little bit conservative, it’s really easy to run 10th, and you just can’t do that. We’re planning on being as fast as we can be. The word ‘conservative’ hasn’t come up at our shop this week.”

Busch said drivers have focused on “rolling time” – the distance between the last timing line before a pit stall and the first line after it – in order to improve speed on pit stops. Among the best has been Johnson, but the six-time series champion also has been busted six times for speeding this season, ranking him among the top 10 violators.

“Jimmie’s been really good at that,” Busch said. “He’s probably been one of the top-two or three all year long on rolling times, but they also have the pit road speeding penalties to go along with it throughout the year So there’s a fine line there, and there’s a balance that you’ve got to be able to withhold in being able to be successful.”