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.”

Cup starting lineup for Sunday’s race at Atlanta

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Kyle Busch will lead the field to the green for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and have Ryan Newman beside him on the front row.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing each placed all four of its cars in the top 12 of the starting lineup.

JGR will have Busch first, Daniel Suarez fourth, Erik Jones 10th and Denny Hamlin 12th. Stewart-Haas Racing will have Kevin Harvick third, Kurt Busch seventh, Clint Bowyer ninth and Aric Almirola 11th.

Reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. will start 35th in the 36-car field after his car failed to pass inspection before qualifying.

Click here for starting lineup

 

Martin Truex Jr.’s car chief ejected after Atlanta inspection failures

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota was the first team to struggle with NASCAR’s new optical scan inspection, and the punishment was a key crew member.

Truex’s Camry failed to clear prequalifying inspection three times Friday, resulting in the ejection of car chief Blake Harris from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex will start 35th in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said the car had multiple problems with body scans “for rear-wheel openings and rear-toe failures.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said the team couldn’t get a handle on the new Optical Scanning Station. Many teams, including Furniture Row Racing, have replicas in their shops of the system, which relies on high-definition cameras and projectors.

“It’s a new process,” Garone said. “We’re working hard, collectively, the whole garage is to figure the boundaries out and how to get through, and NASCAR is working with their equipment the same way.

“It’s just tough. It’s tough. One time you go through, the next time you don’t. You go through again and some things pass that didn’t pass the time before. It’s just frustrating, but we’ll get it all worked out. It’s just a matter of time.

Crew chief Cole Pearn had a viscerally negative reaction at the station when told by NASCAR officials the car hadn’t passed on its third scan, seven minutes before qualifying was scheduled to begin.

Garone said the vibe within the team was “pretty volatile at the moment, because you’re trying to figure out what you actually did, especially when you feel like maybe the equipment itself is off a little bit. It’s also on our side as well. It’s just a weird set of circumstances. The tolerances are very tight. It’s difficult to get through and push where you need to and be conservative where you need to and figure it all out. It does change every time you go through.”

Miller took umbrage at the suggestion the new station wasn’t reliable (which was a frequent criticism of the previous Laser Inspection Station that the optical scan replaced).

“Of course they’re going to say that, but we had 20 people make it through on the first attempt and multiple people saying how consistent the rear-wheel alignment was vs. our equipment last year,” Miller said. “The only comments I had today on the rear-wheel alignment part was positive comments, not negative comments. We ended up with one (car failing to clear inspection). All I can say is I feel like we did our job.”

Miller said after the third failure, it’s NASCAR’s discretion to suspend a team member and the car chief was chosen because “we’ve tapped the car chief as an important individual.” Miller said if Truex had failed a fourth time, the team would have faced a 10-point deduction under a new penalty structure this season that is focused on race weekend punishments.

Miller implied the team had chosen to skip trying to clear inspection a fourth time to avoid risking further penalty, but Garone said the decision was made because “well, we’re out of time.

“That wasn’t a decision other than a timing decision,” he said. “You know what happens when you rush? The driver goes out, and he’s all amped up, and it’s just not worth doing.”

Truex, who will start 35th Sunday, also will serve a 30-minute practice hold Saturday.

Pole-sitter Kyle Busch, whose Joe Gibbs Racing team supplies Toyota chassis and has an alliance with Truex’s team, was surprised the No. 78 was the only inspection casualty Friday.

“I certainly would have guessed there would have been more; that they wouldn’t have been the only ones,’ Busch said. “I honestly have no clue on what happened to them. I don’t have that information from any of our guys. So I’ll have to figure out what they missed out on being able to get through the OSS.”

Denny Hamlin on Daytona 500 spat with Bubba Wallace: ‘It’s done’

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HAMPTON, Georgia — Denny Hamlin seems to be putting his brief feud with Bubba Wallace in the rearview mirror before Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After qualifying 12th for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (and electing to skip the final round because his No. 11 team felt it wasn’t worth the tradeoff on tire wear), Hamlin told a small group of reporters that “I’d say it’s over with. Moving on. Trust me, it’s done.”

Was the Joe Gibbs Racing driver concerned about the fallout from Daytona?

“Doesn’t concern me,” Hamlin said. “I’ll just keep moving forward and try to do the best I can and let whoever tell their side and let it be.”

Earlier Friday at Atlanta, Wallace said he had been kicked out of a golf group that Hamlin is in because of their feud, which started on the last lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500. He also called Hamlin a “dumb ass” for estimating last week on a podcast that 70 percent of NASCAR drivers are using Adderall.

Did Hamlin plan to talk to Wallace?

“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done.”

Hamlin did briefly address Kevin Harvick’s comments that several veteran drivers are angry at him for the Adderall comment.

“I’ve talked to Kevin,” Hamlin said. “We’re good. Yeah. Trust me, it’s all done, guys.”

 

Kyle Busch zooms to first career Atlanta Cup pole

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Kyle Busch denied Ryan Newman a record-breaking eighth career pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway, nipping Newman to take the top starting spot for Sunday’s race.

Busch earned the pole with a lap of 184.652 mph. Newman ran a lap of 184.419 mph in the final round — a difference of 38-thousandths of a second.

Newman will start second and be followed by Kevin Harvick (184.388 mph), Daniel Suarez (184.229) and Brad Keselowski (183.856). Newman remains tied with Buddy Baker for most career poles at Atlanta with seven. Newman, though, will make his 12th career front row start at Atlanta.

This is Busch’s first career Cup pole at Atlanta and 28th in his career.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott all failed to qualify in the top 24 to advance to the second round.

“We’re way off,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “Not even close.”

Dillon will start 25th, Blaney 26th and Elliott 27th.

Martin Truex Jr. did not make a qualifying attempt after his car failed three times to pass inspection. Truex won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks last season. He was eighth at Atlanta a year ago. Truex will start 35th in the 36-car field.

Click here for qualifying results

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