It wasn’t that many years ago that if you were the defending champion of the Sprint Cup Series one of the best perks of your championship season didn’t really come into play until the following season. The champion was awarded first choice of pit stall location at every stop on the schedule.
Every other driver selected his pit stall according to where he qualified, but regardless of the kind of day the reigning champion had on qualifying day, he knew before he ever got to the racetrack for the weekend that his team would enjoy pitting in the first pit stall. Just like it is today, the number one stall is the closest to the line that sits the field after caution flag pit stops and it is the one closest to getting back on the track after a green flag pit stop.
NASCAR eventually saw that the awarding of the first pit stall selection to the reigning champion was just too much of an advantage and took the highly prized perk away. Now, every pit stall selection is made according to where a driver and team qualify. The driver that sits on the pole enters every race with the advantage of not only starting the race first, but also knowing that he will have the best location for his pit stall.
Pit stall selection really comes into play late into a race as passing the leader with the new Gen-6 car has proven to be very difficult. The car in the lead with the clean air still has an advantage over the car trying to make the pass. This has been evident over the last three races as all three have been won by the driver on the pole who had the advantage of the first pit stall during the last pit stop of the race.
Matt Kenseth’s win Sunday at Kansas was the third straight race that the winner was the driver that started the race from the pole. Kenseth’s win came after a final pit stop that saw his crew get him out first. By getting out first, he had choice of either lane to start on the restart and he used the advantage to get out to a quick lead and was able to hold off Kasey Kahne during the final laps of the race.
The week before at Texas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch’s pole-winning effort was put to good use as his team selected the number one pit stall that proved to be the difference in the race. He entered the pits trailing during the last caution flag, but some quick work by his pit crew in changing four tires and the short sprint from his number one pit stall made beating the rest of the field to the line easy work.
Jimmy Johnson used the same strategy two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway to make his way to victory lane. Martinsville has one of the tightest pit roads on the schedule, so being able to pick the first stall gives a driver and his team a huge advantage. Passing is extremely difficult at Martinsville so the best place to pick up spots on the track is actually on pit road and that is exactly what Johnson did all race long.
Three wins in a row by the pole setter is extremely rare in the sport as this was the first time it has happened since 1985. It was accomplished that year by Bill Elliott at Michigan, Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Bristol and Elliott again snagged the pole and the win at Darlington.
It is not to say that winning the pole automatically brings success when the green flag waves on race day, but if you have a fast race car and can stay out of trouble, it is easy to see where getting to pick your choice of pit stall location is such an advantage. The advantage of getting the best pit stall has put some added pressure on drivers when it comes to qualifying day. It is clear from the results that what happens during qualifying now has more of a bearing on the outcome of a race than maybe at any other time in the sport.
Event: Toyota Owners 400
Track: Richmond International
Raceway (.75-mile D-shaped oval,
14 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: April 27, 7:30 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kyle Busch