INSIGHT: The Next Gen learning curve for pit crews

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images via NASCAR

INSIGHT: The Next Gen learning curve for pit crews

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: The Next Gen learning curve for pit crews

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With a wider tire featuring the single, center-locking lug nut sitting around the Richard Childress Racing campus for some time now, J.D. Holcomb wasn’t going to wait to get to work. Holcomb is the tire carrier on Tyler Reddick’s No. 8 team and he likes to do things on his own, in an effort to keep others from getting an edge if he can find something.

So Holcomb has spent weeks getting used to how holding two 18-inch tires will feel when he goes over pit wall next season. Goodyear’s wider tire with a single lug nut is one of the biggest and most polarizing changes as NASCAR introduces the Next Gen car.

“It was awkward,” Holcomb recalled of the first time he picked up the wider tire.

But the work Holcomb’s been doing has been paying off. As some teams are just now getting into pit stop practice, such as last week at the end of a two-day organizational test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Holcomb is already in the stages of refining his technique. An industry veteran who just wrapped up his 21st season, who has worked on every iteration of race car since 2000, the Next Gen tires are just another challenge for Holcomb to adapt to.

“There are a couple of things I’ve already found as a carrier that can help,” said Holcomb. “We’ll just see.”

Holcomb is one of many in the industry preparing for the next era of pit stops in the NASCAR Cup Series. With Next Gen comes a learning curve for everyone as drivers adjust to wheeling a new car, teams dissect how to work on them, and pit crew members must refocus on the task at hand.

While the tire might be wider, what helps is that Holcomb said it is lighter. But he is changing how he holds the tire because of the spoke with a single lug. In the past, Holcomb would use his index finger and middle finger as a grip. Holcomb’s adjustment now sees him grab the tire with the palm of his hand while wrapping his fingers around the spoke.

Justin Fielder is one crew member who admits he’s going through a complete mental reprogramming.

“Everything,” he said. “Absolutely everything. We are starting at square one.”

The wider tire of the Next Gen has pit crews learning new holding techniques in order for timely stops. James Gilbert/Getty Images via NASCAR

Fielder, the rear tire changer on the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car for Erik Jones, said everything a pit crew member knew from before they “basically have to throw away.” One of the most important things to talk about, according to Fielder, is the learning process tire changers are going through to understand the feel of the gun in their hand and the pressure needed to tighten the lug.

“Before, you’d do it enough times and understand what feedback the gun is giving you,” Fielder said. “Now the feedback is completely different.”

Fielder is naturally left-handed, but throughout his 15-year career, he’s changed tires right-handed. However, Fielder is experimenting with changing hands in 2022 because the air gun is so foreign and “feels terrible both ways.” The new air gun for a single lug nut is heavier (by a few pounds) than the old gun, and it’s also bigger in a tire changer’s hand.

“I’ve done it both ways; I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do, but it’s heavier, and it’s heavier in a bad way where its nose-heavy,” Fielder said of adjusting his style. “Also, the way the end of it is tapered, it’s basically tapered away from you, and it’s really hard to grip because your hand wants to slide down it because it’s basically a cone.

“The (old gun) there was a little groove in it with the way the casing was built that you could put your hand almost perfectly into, and this doesn’t have that. Trying to find that perfect place to grab (on the new gun) is incredibly difficult.”

Chase Masterson will have to break some old habits too, but he’s looking forward to it. Masterson is the front tire changer on Reddick’s team, and after 16 seasons, he is enjoying breaking away from the repetitiveness of pit stops by doing something new.

Cup Series teams have had to adapt to rule changes for years, such as one that saw seven over the wall pit crew members go down to six and then the five that service the car now. That was fun to Masterson. Over time, the teams figured out how to perfect having fewer members over the wall, and as they did, pit stops naturally got faster and faster.

A single lug nut doesn’t faze Masterson.

“It’s the same but different,” he said. “You’re fighting the same monster just with a different sword.”

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