How the final call for two tires cost Matt Kenseth a victory at New Hampshire

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – It was a calm, cordial postrace debriefing in front of the No. 20 Toyota at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

No angry gestures from the driver. No shaken fists in frustration by the crew chief.

A lot has happened to Matt Kenseth and Jason Ratcliff over the past week – they both learned they were losing their jobs at Joe Gibbs Racing, and on Sunday, they lost a race – but the pair seemed to take it in stride despite the gut-wrenching reality they missed a golden opportunity to qualify for the playoffs in their final season together.

If Kenseth takes four tires – instead of two right sides – on his final pit stop, he almost assuredly would have snapped a yearlong winless streak with his first victory of the season.

“Without a doubt,” Ratcliff said. “Yeah.

“It’s disappointing. I feel we did everything we needed to win today other than that call at the end.”

Aside from Dale Earnhardt Jr., who took the lead by staying on the track, every car but Kenseth’s pitted for four tires during the final yellow on Lap 262 of 301.

Kenseth snatched the lead from Earnhardt on the Lap 267 restart but quickly was gobbled up by teammate Denny Hamlin, who led the final 34 laps to deliver JGR its first win of 2017. Kenseth hung on for fourth.

It was the latest in a string of tough news for the 2003 champion, who revealed last weekend he was looking for a ride and whose replacement was revealed by the team Tuesday.

The first person to greet him exiting the car was team owner Joe Gibbs, who said in a prerace interview with NBCSN’s Marty Snider that Kenseth “is a great driver with a lot of talent, and we hate the fact we will be racing against him in the future. We got put in a situation, with a lot of things happening to our race team over a period of a year-and-a-half, where we wound up at this spot. We did not want to be here, but we had to make a decision.”

After tossing his heel pads in the car and swigging an orange Gatorade, Kenseth (who apparently has no firm prospects for 2018) defended Ratcliff’s decision while also conceding it left with him with no chance.

“You had to have good left sides to take off today,” he said. “We got ate up those first few laps. I just couldn’t hang on on two tires. Typically you can get away with that. Four tires made big charges all day long. When we were only ones on (two), we were in big trouble.

“It’s a tough one when you’re leading. I’ve seen two tires and four tires win this race numerous times. That’s a tough one to make from the (pit) box. I’ve screwed up way more stuff than (Ratcliff) has. If five or six more cars (took two tires), we’d have a shot.”

Ratcliff, who told NBC Sports after the race that he was also out of the No. 20 beyond 2017, said Kenseth might have won if only three more cars had taken two tires.

“I felt like in five laps, we were matching the time of the leader, it just takes a little while for the right-side pressures to come up,” he said. “I was just playing the track position game, and I felt other guys would do it.

“I don’t know. Obviously it was the wrong call for us, but if I’m running sixth, I’m not going to put four tires on my car to finish sixth. I guess I’m the only guy that thinks that way, but it beat me today, so I’m the one who needs to change my way of thinking.”

With Kenseth possibly needing to make the 16-driver playoff field on points, Ratcliff gambled on finishing second in the first stage and then pitting. Kenseth spent most of the second stage buried in traffic.

That was why Ratcliff decided to make the final call for two tires when the caution flew two laps after Kenseth had taken the lead from Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 137 laps.

“I just didn’t want to lose our track position was the biggest thing,” Ratcliff said. “Earlier in the day we lost our track position, and it was just so hard to get by guys when the tires wore off the car. I knew if a few guys took rights, and we got jumbled up in there, we may be able to get two of them but not the last one. At the old Loudon, 25 laps on the left sides, it was thing to do. I know things are different in this day and time with less (downforce). I really thought guys running further back would try that.”

Kenseth did gain a cushion in the battle for the last playoff spot, moving 52 points ahead of Joey Logano.

“We’ll all remember the strategy call that cost us one, but we accumulated some points, which is important now,” Ratcliff said. “Although I don’t know if points would be a big deal sitting in victory lane.

“It’s a Catch-22. We’re in an odd spot where you have to win, but points are a huge deal right now for us. … Hopefully we can carry momentum to the next week. Maybe the frustration of knowing we had a winning car and losing. Hopefully we can take that, bottle it and let it motivate us to do better the next week.”

Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.