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- There were penalties for runaway wheels issued after the season-opening Daytona 500 and single violations at California’s Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway, and last weekend at Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas.
- So far, it’s been primarily middle- to lower-level teams that have lost wheels and been penalized.
- “There are a lot of wheels falling off. You’d think we wouldn’t have that with the single lug,” said Cup driver Denny Hamiln.’
A gaggle of Cup Series teams have lost crew chiefs and over-the-wall crewmen because of runaway wheels during recent races. The penalty for violating Rule 10.5.2.6 is the loss of crew chief and at least two crewmen for the next four races.
There were two such penalties after the season-opening Daytona 500 and single violations at California’s Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway, and last weekend at Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas. Almost without fail, the wheels have been separating from their cars within a few lapses after a pit stop.
Make no mistake: teams are taking the issue very seriously.
“It’s a big penalty, so we’ve tried to put a big emphasis on that from day one (with the Next Gen car),” said Ryan Blaney, Saturday afternoon’s pole-winner for Sunday afternoon’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. “When a handful of guys had that problem at Daytona, it kind of got sorted out as far as the way they make the wheels.
“We (Team Penske) have been too hesitant on that issue to an extent of having too much torque on our nuts—making sure that doesn’t happen. It slows the stop down by making sure of that, so it’s a balancing act. How tightly do you want these things torqued each stop? You’re losing time getting them tight, but the penalty and the risk (of losing a wheel) is huge.
“We have a great pit department that does a great job figuring out what things need to happen and what things absolutely cannot happen. We’ve put a big emphasis on it, for sure; something we’ve focused on because it’s a big penalty.”
So far—interpret this as you will—it’s been primarily middle- to lower-level teams that have lost wheels and been penalized. Justin Haley and Bubba Wallace each has one career victory, Kaz Grala and Corey LaJoie none. That begs the inevitable question: if the vendor-provided wheels and single center lug nut are identical on all cars, is human error the cause.
“Attaching that one lug nut it tougher than it looks,” said mid-pack runner Tyler Reddick, generally considered among the favorites to be NASCAR’s next breakthrough winner. “It might look easy from the stands or wherever, but it’s a very precise move. If you don’t get it just right, it’s eventually going to come off.”
Haley lost crew chief Trent Owens and crewmen Jacob Nelson and Marshall McFadden from recent races at Fontana, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Atlanta. Their violation came in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Grala lost crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and tire changers Chris Zima and Aaron Powell for the same four races. Just as with Haley and his team, Grala lost his wheel in the 500.
A week later, Front Row Motorsports featuring rookie Todd Gilliland lost a wheel at Auto Club Speedway. Crew chief Seth Barbour and crewmen Jourdan Osinskie and Tanner Andrews missed subsequent tour stops at Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, and last weekend near Austin.
Two weeks after Fontana, at Phoenix, mid-pack runner Corey Lajoie lost a wheel. Crew chief Brian Sparks and tire changers Blaine Anderson and Allen Holman were suspended four races, including this weekend’s 400-lap event at Richmond Raceway.
And at COTA just last weekend, Bubba Wallace lost a left-rear tire at speed. Crew chief Bootie Barker and crewmen Caleb Dirks and Adam Riley are serving four-race penalties that include Richmond, Martinsville, Bristol, and Talladega.
Denny Hamlin, generally considered one of the tour’s most successful drivers, has struggled since the summer of 2020, when he and Michael Jordan began putting together 23XI Racing for Bubba Wallace. Hamlin has won only three times since then, a span of 54 races, one of the longest dry spells of his career. Whatever the overriding problem might be, the immediately problem is loose wheels.
“There is some concern,” Hamlin said Saturday at Richmond, a short drive from his hometown of Chesterfield, Va. “There are a lot of wheels falling off. You’d think we wouldn’t have that with the single lug. Before, if you missed one or two lugs (of five on the previous wheels), you’d always have backup. When you only have one, that’s it – (if not tightened enough) it’s going to come off.
“I don’t think teams have really perfected anything that looks like the fix right now. I don’t know what the fix is—if there is any fix—(unless) it’s just you need to wait longer and get the wheels tight to be sure.”
It sounds so easy, but as with everything new in racing, it’s not.
“My team hasn’t lost one yet,” said mid-pack runner Chris Buescher, “and I think that’s because we pay very close attention and take the time to do it right.”
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