Jason Ratcliff

Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.’’

Hamlin notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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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.”

Matt Kenseth’s crew chief will join the driver in leaving No. 20 Toyota after the 2017 season

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – Crew chief Jason Ratcliff will be following driver Matt Kenseth on the way out of the No. 20 Toyota in 2018.

Ratcliff confirmed to NBC Sports after Kenseth’s fourth place finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that he won’t be returning atop the pit box next season when Erik Jones replaces Kenseth.

Ratcliff said he isn’t sure if he will stay at Joe Gibbs Racing (“We’ll see,” he said with a smile), but he expects all of the car’s team members are secure at the organization.

“We performed well this weekend in spite of the news” that Jones would replace Kenseth,” Ratcliff said. “All these guys are very good at what they do.

“I don’t think they’ll have a problem staying locked in with the 20 car or one of these cars. They’re just too good. I think for them, knowing that, that they have a secure job at Joe Gibbs Racing next year regardless of the driver change, that’s helpful. At least there’s no uncertainty on their part.”

Ratcliff said the mood has seemed good since Tuesday’s announcement about Jones (which followed Kenseth revealing the previous weekend at Kentucky that he was looking for a ride).

“It seems to be,” Ratcliff said. “We have only spoke briefly about it this week. I still was trying to get the details myself. There wasn’t a whole lot I could say to those guys because I don’t know that I knew much.”

Ratcliff has been paired with Kenseth since he joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, scoring 13 victories together. He also won with Joey Logano in 2012.

He has 36 wins as a crew chief in the Xfinity Series, including 21 with Kyle Busch in 2009-10.

Matt Kenseth crew chief ‘not sure’ yet if he’ll be with No. 20 team next season

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Two days after it was announced Erik Jones would take over driving Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Cup car in 2018, crew chief Jason Ratcliff said he was “not sure” yet if he would be in his position next year.

Ratcliff has been paired with Matt Kenseth on the No. 20 Toyota since Kenseth joined JGR in 2013, earning 13 Cup wins together. He was also Joey Logano‘s crew chief in his final year at JGR.

“I’m not sure about that right now,” Ratcliff said Thursday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think it’s pretty new, pretty early I should say in the planning stages.

“For me, I’m still focused on this season. I can only focus on one thing at a time and I got my hands full right right now trying to get the 20 car back up front and I think we’ve made a lot of progress, especially in the last month and a half. But we still need a win to lock ourselves in the (playoffs) and put ourselves in position for a championship.”

Eighteen races into the season, Kenseth, as well as the other three JGR teams, remain winless. Kenseth’s last victory came last July at the same track the series visits this weekend, New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Kenseth is currently 11th in the points standings.

With JGR winless, Ratcliff admits the news of Kenseth’s departure at season’s end is “obviously a distraction” to his team. But his crew members have the experience to push through it.

“Thankfully, most of my guys, if not all of them, have been in this sport for a while and they’ve experienced this type of thing throughout their career,” Ratcliff said. “Most of them have been on really good teams before they came to the 20 car and they know what we’re all about and they know the expectations are not only for the 20 but at our organizations.

“Every week put your best car on the track and go out there and push hard to win races and pursue championships.”

Heading to New Hampshire, the No. 20 team has six top 10s, but only two – Charlotte, Pocono – in the last 10 races. He’s only led three times this year, at Richmond (164 laps), Talladega (four laps) and 21 at Daytona before wrecking out.

But at New Hampshire, Kenseth has led 288 laps in the last seven races and won three times in that span. He has finished worse than sixth once (21st, fall 2014).

“We’re going to a really good track this weekend,” Ratcliff siad. “We’ve had some success there and hopefully we can get the thing into victory lane this weekend and that will be a step in the right direction in staying focused on what we need to stay focused on.”

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‘Glitch’ plays role in inspection issue for some Sprint Cup teams

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LONG POND, Pa. — After some Sprint Cup teams were unable to go through the Laser Inspection Station on Friday morning when the system suffered a “glitch,’’ NASCAR waived the first failure for those teams.

That didn’t prevent some teams from receiving a warning, including Kyle Larson’s team, which got its fourth warning and will lose pit stall selection for Sunday’s race.

“We had a little bit of a glitch this morning at the opening of inspection with our laser platform,” Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition and racing development told NBCSN. “We got it rectified quickly.”

Because many teams were unable to go through the Laser Inspection Station in pre-event inspection, their first time through was before qualifying. Many missed. With other teams also failing template inspection, the line grew.

NASCAR pushed qualifying back 20 minutes to ease the congestion in the garage, but the cars of Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who went on to win the pole, were in the garage when engines fired for the first round.

Busch was the last car to make it to pit road, not leaving the garage until seven minutes remained in the opening 20-minute session. He advanced and qualified 14th.

Crew chief Adam Stevens explained what happened to the No. 18 Toyota in inspection:

“We rolled through for qualifying, and we had too much rear toe on one side by just a little tiny bit and we made an adjustment. The opposite side showed the adjustment. So it showed like it moved, liked we changed the toe. The side that we failed on went three times as much the wrong way. It’s a solid axle, it can only move one direction. I don’t know what happened. It’s like we cut the housing in half and welded it back together. So we made another adjustment, one side showed the adjustment, the other side didn’t move

“All we know is what the machine shows. It’s a solid axle. They have to move the same amount. One side is moving and the first time moved the other way like we bent the housing. You can’t bend the housing. That was a little bit confusing. We had to roll through three times.’’

The cars of Busch, Kenseth and Truex did not go through the Laser Inspection Station until before qualifying.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Kenseth, said the long line of cars having to go through inspection held up his team.

“There were so many cars that failed it that the line just kept stacking up,’’ Ratcliff said. “It wasn’t anything we couldn’t fix. It was just that the line got so long it took forever to go through again.’’