With the last two Sprint Cup Series races being won because of pit road strategy, it brings to mind another brilliant call made from atop the pit box. Although he’s no longer a crew chief, when Frank Stoddard was atop the pit box for Jeff Burton in the No. 99 CITGO Ford he was one of the best in the business.
For those in doubt, Stoddard would pull off a memorable call in the 2002 All-Star race. The rules nine years ago are vastly different than what the field will be facing this Saturday night in Charlotte for the 27th annual Sprint All-Star race. The name of the race, how the field is determined and the purse size all are not what they once were.
In 2002, the race was split up into three segments: the first being 40 laps, the second 30 laps and the final segment 20 laps. There was also a knockout format, called Survival of the Fastest where drivers would be eliminated after each segment. The top-20 advanced to segment two and the top-10 advanced to the final segment.
The excitement normally doesn’t start until the third segment, when the money is in sight and drivers let it all hang out. But as the laps wound down in segment one on May 18, 2002 it was Burton leading and he was about to stumble.
Per the NASCAR rules, all drivers are required to make a pit stop, but Burton was still cruising with three laps to go. With the competition having already made their stops, Burton held a 26 second lead over Jimmie Johnson and with two laps to go the broadcast crew featuring Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds, starting to think out loud.
“We didn’t miss something did we?” asked Waltrip, as Burton headed for turn one with two laps to go. Hanging in the balance the longer he stayed on the track was the risk of being eliminated. Once he came down pit road he would lose his track position and most likely slide outside the top 20 and not advance to segment two.
How long was Burton and Stoddard going to hold out? As he approached turn four Waltrip thought for sure he would be pitting that time. Burton didn’t and took the white flag as Waltrip could barely croak out, “he’s not coming.”
Many watched in astonishment. Not pitting would mean not playing by NASCAR rules and possibly being disqualified. There was no going back as the team either lost track of the lap count or were having trouble communicating. Whatever the reason one could come up with there was no denying that Burton had missed his chance to pit.
Or did he? With excitement and curiosity in his voice Joy suddenly perked up, “What if your pit was before the start finish line, you pitted on the last lap and you only had to jump across the line?”
That’s exactly what Stoddard was going to have his driver do. “Oh my gosh” exclaimed Joy when Stoddard starting calling Burton to pit road. As the head shaking began Joy stated what many were already thinking, “This is either crazy or brilliant.”
Brilliant it was as Burton made his stop and only had to go 50 yards to cross the finish line and advance into segment two. Had it not been for a full-speed Johnson and a slow stop, Burton might have even won instead of crossing second.
Waltrip had no shame in admitting that he was just a little bit confused by what he and thousands of others had just seen. NASCAR officials, while maybe amused at the time and even a little impressed, would mandate after 2002 that green flag pit stops must come during a designated time in the race.
It removed any chance that a crew chief could repeat Stoddard’s strategy in the future. At the time though, “I have got to tip my hat to Frank Stoddard,” said McReynolds. “I can’t wait to see him after this race because that was a brilliant call.”
As brilliant and bold the call was, it wasn’t even to win the race. But it was made in hopes of setting his team up to win the most important segment later that night. In big races, such as when Regan Smith won the Southern 500 at Darlington two weeks ago, all the stops are pulled out. More risks are taken and gambles made, just as Stoddard did in exploiting a loophole in NASCAR’s rulebook.
When asked how he came up with the strategy, Stoddard laughed, “We didn’t have a whole lot of stuff to do today and … we just thought about it and we wanted to come up with something different here, see if we couldn’t get something out of them and almost pulled off a win right there if the clutch wasn’t slipping.”
Burton’s night would be done in though in segment two because of the aforementioned clutch. He finished 20th as Johnson won his second segment of the night. Now it was onto the final segment for the big prize, which would be won by a driver who benefited from Stoddard’s call in segment one.
With Burton finishing second it put Ryan Newman in the transfer spot to advance to the second segment. He then advanced to the final segment and would go on to win the Winston by holding off a furious charge on the final lap from Dale Earnhardt Jr. For once though, it wasn’t the finish that people cared about or would remember.
It was all a crew chief again doing what they do best and outsmarting the competition. Only on that May night Stoddard didn’t just pull off a brilliant move to outsmart the competition, he outsmarted NASCAR too.