How NASCAR Works

Race Strategy

How much patience a driver exhibits is based on his personality, as well as the stage of the race. Most NASCAR races are 400 to 500 miles long, which can translate into almost 200 laps, depending on the track. The race at the Talladega Superspeedway, for example, is a 188-lap event around a 2.66-mile track, resulting in a 500-mile race. Early in a race, a driver can afford to be patient. If it's getting late, he may have to be more aggressive. "Bumping" is one way to do that. When a driver bumps, or taps, the rear bumper of the car in front, the lead car will often float up the track, giving the trailing car enough room to pass. A similar effect can be achieved by running close to the back of another car and taking air off the other car's spoiler. This disturbs the airflow and makes the back end of the lead car unstable.

A driver relies on his spotter -- a team member who watches the race from the press box -- to help spot vulnerabilities and opportunities. The spotter is in constant contact with the driver, communicating information about accidents, track conditions and the positions of other cars. This exchange of information is especially important on shorter tracks, such as the Dover International Speedway, where drivers are lapping so fast they sometimes lose their bearings and can't locate themselves on the track.


These second-to-second strategic decisions are complemented by other strategies being worked out by the team. Many of these strategies are related to preserving key parts on the car to make sure it delivers peak performance for the entire race. For example, during a long race, a driver may decide to go easy at the beginning to avoid blowing an engine. Or he may slow down more than usual on turns or refrain from braking too hard to extend the life of his tires or brakes.

Of course, some of these issues can be addressed during pit stops, but pit stops themselves become a huge strategic tipping point. Teams must decide exactly when to pit and when to stay on the track, and it's the crew chief's responsibility to make the final call. It's not an insignificant decision: A good pit stop can catapult a driver into the lead. A bad one can cost the driver a lead and, in some cases, a victory.