The race this Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway will mark the first of 14 straight weeks of racing on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. And at every track the mental preparedness and physical readiness of the drivers and the pit crew play a vital role.
When you reach the NASCAR Sprint Cup level, you have reached the premier series. Just like the other professional sports, our athletes train year around. It’s a combination of proper exercise, proper training and proper diet.
The mental sharpness and focus required from these drivers are much greater than anyone could ever imagine. Additionally, if they are in peak physical shape, I believe they have a better feel of the race car. Then, drivers can better relay that information to the crew chief.
You’ve heard our own Darrell Waltrip talk about, back in the day, how you paced yourself and saved a little bit of yourself and your car for the end of the race. It isn’t like that anymore. The amount of energy these drivers are saving is much less than it ever has been in the history of the sport. These guys today are driving every lap like it’s a qualifying lap.
When that green flag waves, these guys go all out. They hold very little back. They are flat-out for 500 laps or 500 miles. The difference is a combination of their confidence in their equipment and their confidence in their physical endurance.
In the past, we always used to laugh at champion Tony Stewart because it normally took him half a season to race himself back into shape. Historically, Tony always seemed to come alive in the latter part of the season. This past offseason, however, Tony did a lot of racing in other series. I believe he came into the 2012 season in better shape than ever, and I think even he sees the results with two wins this early.
It’s pretty much the same for the pit crews. These days they know when they head to the race track, they are there to do a job. There is not as much late Saturday night partying as there used to be. When it’s time to race, you have to be sharp. You have to be mentally and physically prepared to react and adapt to anything that might happen.
Do you think the pit crews back in the Junior Johnson days ever thought about nutrition or having trainers? Today, on every team that is the norm. It’s like any other professional team. It’s to make sure these guys can stay at a high level and be able to perform as many pit stops as necessary. The goal is to make the last pit stop equal to the first one.
Whether it is cold or hot or whatever the demands are of that particular race weekend, there simply can’t be any drop-off by the pit crews. That’s how incredibly close the competition is in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup series. One mistake on pit road Saturday night at Texas, for example, could cost your driver the win.
You can lose a second on the race track and that might only cost you one or two positions. If you lose a second on pit road, well it can cost you 10 to 15 positions. That’s the reason you have to be perfect each and every time. That’s why these athletes are hired. They have to be able to handle the pressure and perform almost flawlessly on every pit stop.
There is such a demand and need that teams are looking at former athletes to fill their ranks on the pit crew. The No. 48 car, for example, targeted those types in an effort to rebuild its pit crew. They were the ones they felt could handle the pressure when that last, critical pit stop came.
The mental side is still where things are more likely to break down than the physical side. Some guys who aren’t used to our style of pressure simply can’t handle it despite their physical capabilities.