Jason Ratcliff

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NASCAR issues lug nut penalties to two teams

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In addition to the penalties to Chase Elliott and the No. 24 team issued by NASCAR on Tuesday, two other penalties were assessed from this past weekend’s action at Chicagoland Speedway.

In the Cup Series, Jason Ratcliff, crew chief of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team (driver: Matt Kenseth), was fined $10,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

In the Xfinity Series, Jonathon Hanson, crew chief of the No. 98 Biagi DenBeste Racing (driver: Darrell Wallace Jr.), was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

NASCAR also announced the indefinite suspension of Gilbert Garcia for violating Sections 12.1; 19, which covers behavior (substance abuse policy). It was not announced which team or which series Garcia is affiliated with.

Matt Kenseth apologizes to team for runner-up finish

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Matt Kenseth, battling to remain playoff eligible, apologized to his team after Martin Truex Jr. held him off to win Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

“Sorry,’’ Kenseth told his team on the radio. “I freaking sucked. I should have went a little harder. Sorry. (Truex) missed Turn 6, and I still couldn’t pass him. I’m sorry.’’

Crew chief Jason Ratcliff responded: “You did real good. We were on the button (on fuel) there.’’

Kenseth said: “I saved so much (fuel) early in that run. I should have ran harder. You don’t get many of those opportunities. Damn it. I wish I would have gotten a little closer getting into (Turn) 7, but I just couldn’t get there because of my brakes.’’

A victory would have assured Kenseth a spot in the playoffs in what could be his final Cup season. Erik Jones will replace Kenseth, whose contract expires after this year, at Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2003 Cup champion has not said what his plans are for next year.

The runner-up finish leaves Kenseth in the last playoff spot with five races left. Kenseth stretched his lead on Clint Bowyer, the first driver outside a playoff spot. Kenseth leads Bowyer by 28 points heading into next weekend’s race at Michigan.

Kenseth and many others made their final pit stop on Lap 53 of Sunday’s 90-lap race. At the time, nobody could make it to the end without saving fuel. Kenseth restarted eighth. He moved into the top five by Lap 64. He found himself second in the final laps as cars in front pitted for fuel.

Kenseth was told he didn’t have to save fuel on the last lap and pressured Truex but couldn’t get by, having to settle for his best finish of the year.

Asked if he was happy or disappointed after the race, Kenseth, winless in the last 39 Cup races said: “I’m the second happiest. Martin is the happiest. We really needed the win. Honestly, I don’t even think about the playoffs. I more think about coming here for however many, 15, 17, 18 years, whatever it has been, and not really having a win or an opportunity to win and never even really been that great here.

“Felt like we had a top-five car. Obviously, we had good fortune there at the end with our track position and fuel mileage and all that to stay in it and have a shot at it. Man, when it’s that close, and you see him saving and you’re saving and you go after him on the last lap, it’s disappointing not to get it, especially when I saw him miss Turn 6.’’

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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.