Apr 29, 2016
- •NASCAR writer for ESPN.com
•2009, 2013 NMPA Writer of the Year
•More than 25 years experience covering motorsports
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TALLADEGA, Ala. - Catastrophic.
That's not the description of a crew chief in the garage of what would happen if a wheel is loose. It's the description of the potential penalty if his car has 19 instead of 20 tight lug nuts on a car that comes into victory lane.
Kurt Busch crew chief Tony Gibson is an old-school crew chief. And he shudders at the thought of a one-race suspension for not having five "safe and secure" lug nuts on a wheel after a race, part of a new rule issued Monday. NASCAR also has the long-standing option of ruling that a winning driver could not use a win to get into the Chase if a rules violation is found postrace.
NASCAR issued the revised lug nut rule Monday in response to driver complaints that teams took big risks by tightening only three of the five lug nuts, especially late in the race, in order for quicker pit stops. Now NASCAR has put an end to that practice. But in doing so, it has created as many questions as it has answers. It has created less-worried drivers and more stressed crew chiefs.
Some background: NASCAR had stopped policing whether the lug nuts were tight starting in 2015 in a move to streamline the number of officials and keep all officials off a busy and hectic pit road. NASCAR transitioned to a video officiating system that relies heavily on cameras and computer software to catch violations that are then reviewed by eight officials watching the pit stops on video. Instead of 43 officials standing on pit road, NASCAR now has 10 officials roaming behind pit wall.
In the past, if a wheel were so loose that driver couldn't maintain speed, the driver would pit. Occasionally, NASCAR would call a driver back down pit road to tighten a lug nut, and even there were times where the official was wrong. In order to discourage teams from tightening only a few lug nuts or drivers racing with loose wheels, NASCAR also introduced a rule in 2015 that it would automatically suspend the crew chief, the tire changer and the tire carrier for four races if a wheel came off for improper installation.
After Tony Stewart said - and was fined - for a passionate rant on the lack of a rule on tight lug nuts ("We shouldn't be playing games with safety to win races," he said), NASCAR acted five days later with the new rule, saying that if a car after the race did not have all five of its lug nuts "safe and secure," that the crew chief would be suspended one race.
What's the problem?
NASCAR never was able to tell for certain if five lug nuts were tight in the years where it had 43 officials on pit road. Stewart even said so himself: "It's been hard for officials to tell whether they were [tight]," he said about the rule in January 2015. "They're all drawn up. They can't tell what the torque is on those nuts anyway on the wheel. I don't know. It's something I don't want to think about. All I know is when it starts vibrating, that's when I radio in that we've got a vibration and I ask if they've got them tight. If they're tight enough to make it two laps, that's fine with me."
But when Stewart watched races from the spotter's stand at the start of the season, he saw more loose wheels than he could remember. And as a driver, he thought about how much a driver would push it.
"The thing that really was a huge concern to me was if you are a driver that hasn't made the Chase yet and say you are leading the race with 10 laps to go here at Talladega and you've got a loose wheel," Stewart said Friday. "What do you do? Do you pit and give up that win or do you take a chance that you might make it to the end and lock yourself in for the season? That is a huge decision.
"I'm still trying to figure out why as a driver we were put in that position to have to make that decision, because if the wheel comes off it's a penalty for your crew chief and a fine. If it comes off and goes into the stands, it's on us as a driver. If we crash the car or crash other cars it's on us as a driver."
NASCAR's new rule has plenty of questions. What does "safe and secure" mean? And would NASCAR really invoke the rule that a driver's win to get into the Chase must be "unencumbered by violation(s) of the NASCAR Rules or other action(s) detrimental to stock car auto racing or NASCAR as determined in the sole discretion of NASCAR." NASCAR has yet to answer those questions.
Just imagine victory lane. Let's say Jamie McMurray, 13th in the current standings and considered on the Chase bubble, wins Sunday and finds himself in the Chase. And then he doesn't for a loose lug nut.
"It would make you want to fight and claw and be really pissed for sure," McMurray crew chief Matt McCall said. "It will be interesting to see how all that goes."
The hard part for NASCAR is that everyone will be able to see if a lug nut isn't on the car postrace. NASCAR can't just swallow the whistle, wave it off and say fix it for next week. Everyone will know, and NASCAR would have to act. Or could it go back to tape - all the teams film their pit stops with cameras better positioned than NASCAR's to see the left-side wheels - to determine if the lug nut had been on and worked itself off.
The other question is how tight must the lug nut be after the race to be in a "safe and secure" manner? This is a sport where the definition of "safe" changes. Drivers 10 years ago felt safe in their cars, but they feel much safer now.
"The guns are so fast and the guys' hand speeds are so fast that a lug nut could go on and he hits the fifth nut and it's good and it's not all the way up and it unwinds itself and falls off during the race," Gibson said. "It happens every day. It happens in our sport all the time. ... They come off."
As far as the pit crews, getting back to tighten five lug nuts won't create too much of an issue for the tire changers to adjust. At the short tracks, many teams started doing five lug nuts because of the number of loose wheels.
The drivers wouldn't know whether the car has five lug nuts on it. If it has three tight lug nuts, the driver will feel just as tight as if it had five.
"There's a lot of things and decisions that get made on a race car on a weekend that it's a risk versus reward when it comes to safety in a lot of areas, whether it's running more camber, tire pressure," said Brad Keselowski crew chief Paul Wolfe.
"To say the lug nut thing was a big safety concern, I understand where the drivers are at but there's a lot of decisions that get made on a set up or how we approach a race that there is, if you want to call it, is a safety risk."
Few seemed surprised that teams had gone to tightening just three.
"Every time you give somebody a little bit of rope, we'll take it until somebody chokes," McCall said. "I don't think there is any driver out there that when it starts vibration is going to keep running. He's going to come down pit road. They had a little bit of control still."
The drivers certainly are in control now. With their voices. They were heard by those really in control. The NASCAR officials. They got what they wanted; NASCAR has tightened a rule. But the question is how tight?