‘Poor execution’ by new pit crew costs Kyle Busch a shot at win; raises questions about swap

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JOLIET, Ill. – Kyle Busch lingered for several minutes outside his No. 18 Toyota in pit lane after a disappointing Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, waiting to talk with Adam Stevens.

When Busch’s crew chief arrived, their discussion centered on how the car changed in the race, adjustments that were made and how they could improve next time.

In other words, it was about “what we can control,” Stevens said — which meant there was no mention of the new pit crew that cost the pole-sitter a shot at winning the 2017 Cup Series playoff opener.

“Just piss-poor execution all around,” Stevens said. “Made a lot of mistakes on pit road, and when you make back-to-back mistakes, it’s tough to recover from them.

“Track like this, everyone knows you’re going to get longer green flag runs, you’re not going to have a lot of cautions to get those laps back. We had a fast car. Best car I’ve ever been a part of here and not much to show for it.”

Busch salvaged a 15th after falling two laps down because of an unscheduled pit stop under green for a loose wheel (which happened during a pit stop after leading 85 of the first 87 laps and winning stage). It was compounded when the team was penalized because gas man Kenneth Purcell went over the wall too soon without a fuel can in hand.

“It didn’t aid the pit stop, but that’s a rule,” Stevens said. “Plain as day. We all know the rule.”

“Gotta move on,” Busch said. “Nothing we can do right now.”

Chicagoland marked the first race since Joe Gibbs Racing swapped Busch’s crew with Daniel Suarez’s after the regular season.

It wasn’t necessarily a surprising move – slow pit stops nearly cost him a victory at Bristol Motor Speedway last month and also left him behind teammate Denny Hamlin in the closing stretch at Darlington Raceway — but it probably was a difficult one considering five members of the crew had won the 2015 championship with Busch. Some had been with him since he joined the team in 2008.

Busch publicly supported the move Wednesday at Playoff Media Day, noting “my guys, would have speed, but the speed that they had was occasional and the consistency that they had was less than stellar. When you can have a faster group and their consistency is better, there’s no question you’ve got to take them.”

After Sunday’s race, he reaffirmed his approval of the move.

“We all made this decision together, so I’ve got to talk to (car owner) Joe (Gibbs) and figure out what we’re going to do,” Busch said.

Will the team stay with the new crew?

“Moving on,” Busch said.

Car owner Joe Gibbs, who also waited by Busch’s Camry after the race and whispered some words of encouragement to his driver, said the team would reassess the decision this week but seemed to be leaning toward sticking with the move.

“We felt like this was the best decision for the team,” Gibbs said. “You always look at everything, and we do. But we make decisions like that, you hope things work out for you, sometimes they don’t. We all go up, we all go down together.

“Those guys are really battle tested. That group is. They’ve been around a long time.”

Stevens, who was involved in the decision to swap crews, said he didn’t expect a change.

“I’m just one man, I don’t have the ultimate say,” he said. “It was a company decision to make the change that we made. I’m confident we made the right one, it was just a bad day.”

Stevens said it possibly could have been playoff jitters after the pit crew had performed well in practice.

“I hope so, but I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to debrief with them yet. I’m expecting it to go well next week. At the end of the day, we all have a job to do, and we didn’t do it today.”

After entering the playoffs with a 24-point cushion on the cutoff spot because of two wins and 11 stage victories, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver actually increased his lead to 35 points over 13th (the bottom four of 16 drivers will be eliminated after the first three races).

That means Busch remains virtually a lock to advance to the second round, but he was wistful about another stage win and five playoff points left on the table.

“Three top 15s in a row should transfer you through this first round,” he said. “But 15th is going to hurt on the points you’re going to need — stage points and wins for that third round.”

Cole Pearn, crew chief for race winner Martin Truex Jr., said if Busch had managed to get back on the lead lap, he was “going to be a challenge; we didn’t have much for them.”

Stevens, though, was taking the long view.

“That’s what the playoffs are all about, it’s about surviving and advancing,” he said. “Obviously, we had a car that was capable of racing for the win, and we took ourselves out of that. But you still have to salvage the best possible finish that you can and move on to the next round.

I’ve had bad days, but I’ve certainly had worse days.”