‘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.”

NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

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Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

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Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.