NASCAR: Are Two Tires Better Than Four Late in the Race?

Mark SchaferContributor IAugust 2, 2010

LONG POND, PA - AUGUST 01:  Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Ford, pits during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway on August 1, 2010 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

It’s an age-old debate every time a driver pulls into the pits: Should they take two tires or four tires? Most of the time, and during most races, four tires will prevail over two.

As the race starts to wind down, crew chiefs and drivers alike may try and play the strategy game and take only two right-side or two left-side tires, depending on the track.

Sometimes the strategy works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The last two weeks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are the two most recent examples of strategy working.

During the Brickyard 400, during what turned out to be the final pit stops, the two Earnhardt-Ganassi cars decided to go on opposite sides of the strategic spectrum.

Jamie McMurray, driver of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, and Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, were the two drivers involved in the strategy calls. McMurray and crew decided to take just two tires, while Montoya and crew changed all four.

McMurray went on to victory, after re-starting first, while Montoya fell back after re-starting seventh, and would eventually be the cause of a late-race wreck.

Fast-forward one week to the Sunoco/Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 in Pocono and another round of late-race pit stops would once again shape the outcome of the race. Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 3M Ford, would do what he had done on every pit-stop under yellow during the race, which is take two tires instead of four.

Jeff Gordon had been leading the race, like Montoya the week before, and, like Montoya, Gordon took four tires instead of two.

Biffle would go on to score his first career victory at the tricky triangle of Pocono and score his first win in almost two years. Gordon would make a late race charge but would finish sixth.

While the recent surge in late race cautions and decisions to be made about whether or not to take two tires or four tires is nothing new, winning on two tires seems to be almost a theme this year.

Earlier in the season at Phoenix, during the Subway Fresh Fit 600, a late race caution led to the strategy of Ryan Newman bringing home a victory for his No. 39 Army/Tornadoes/Haas Automotive Chevrolet. Kyle Busch had dominated that race, but before the final restart, his team took four tires instead of two, while Newman and others went with just two tires.

Another example of this can be seen when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited Darlington for the Southern 500. Late in the race Jeff Gordon (notice a theme here?) took four tires while others decided to take two. Gordon would fade late in the race and Denny Hamlin would start his “all we do is win” streak.

There are plenty of other examples of two tires prevailing over four, going back to Richmond of 2004, when Jeremy Mayfield took no tires and went on to win, but the fact is that when there is a caution late in a race, there is going to be strategy called, and one way or another, a driver will end up on the wrong side of strategy.

When, though, could this stop? Surely next week’s race at the road course of Watkins Glen, drivers might opt to take four tires on the turns of the Watkins Glen International.

Or a new strategy could be taking no tires and just gas to make sure a driver has enough fuel to get around the long road course.

Either way, besides the themes of feuding teammates, late race cautions, and have at it boys add two tires or four tires to the mix. The latter of these themes could prove to be a bigger difference on the track than feuding teammates or have at it boys.