It's not a space shuttle launch.

What can be so difficult about changing four tyres and putting gas in a car?

Clearly, the task becomes more difficult when 13 seconds is the standard for an excellent pit stop. On the other hand, the seven members of a NASCAR Sprint Cup over-the-wall pit crew have been drilled on their respective tasks with more repetitions than they care to remember.

In the past, pit stops have been likened to a well-orchestrated ballet. This year, there's more Bubba than Baryshnikov on pit road.

Uncharacteristic mistakes by top teams have exacted a heavy price this season. Lug nuts that 'fell off' the wheel studs during pit stops cost the Roush Fenway Racing cars of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in the April 5 Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. In Edwards' case, the lug problem on the final pit stop probably cost him the race.

In Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Jeff Gordon lost 77 points of his lead in the Cup points standings because his crew failed to secure a lug nut during a green-flag stop.

Jimmie Johnson might have been able to challenge team-mate Mark Martin for the victory, but he never got the chance. Johnson repeatedly drove up through the field, only to have lug-nut problems set him back.

"We drove up to the top-five, top-three a few times, come down pit road and had something going wrong with the glue on the lug nuts and the wheels," Johnson said after the race. "They would just fall off on our pit stops. It happened like three times.

"Track position is so important here. I'd work my way all the way back up there and then it would happen again. That time we got up to fourth, I really think we had a shot at winning this race if that didn't happen."

It's not just the lug nuts that have come unglued this year. You can add a few pit crews and drivers to the list.

Walk down pit road a few hours before a race, and you'll see tyre changers meticulously gluing lug nuts to wheels. Ideally, when the tyre carrier hangs his tyre during a pit stop, the tyre changer can hit the lug nut with his air gun and secure it to the stud.

This year, the ideal is less often the normal. For safety reasons - to lessen the likelihood of a loose tyre being jettisoned from a car - NASCAR mandated that at least one thread must show on the outside of a lug nut once it has been tightened.

That rule change has forced teams to use longer wheel studs to expose the thread. Instead of a three-quarter-inch stud, which requires seven turns to tighten a lug nut, most teams are now using studs measuring 1 1/16 to 1 3/32 inches that require 10 or more turns to secure the lug.

Amazingly, this particular rule change seems to have thrown the precision ballet of a pit stop into chaos for more than one elite organisation. Because the longer studs require a fraction of a second longer to secure, the timing and rhythm ingrained in the crews through years of repetition have suffered.

"I can't really speak to anybody else, but I know that's been one of the challenges that we really had to look at this winter when they made that rules change--to practice pit stops," Kenseth said. "You have to be on (the lug nuts) longer, so that's really been the only change.

"It's really competitive out on the track and it's really competitive on pit road, and whenever you're trying that hard to turn in the perfect stop, once in a while you're going to have mistakes or have things not go quite right. So you're just trying to push it that extra little bit."

Mistakes take many forms - the driver can speed on pit road, for example - just as lug nuts can fall off for a number of reasons: glue can fail, a tyre changer can miss slightly with his air gun and knock a nut off the stud as can a bad hang by the tyre carrier.

The bottom line is that if it takes a whole season for teams to acclimate to the new stud lengths, what happens on pit road will have as much to do with crowning the new Cup champion as what happens on the racetrack.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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