Mother Nature fooled several crew chiefs late in race at Michigan

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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BROOKLYN, Mich. — With victory and a playoff spot there for any team willing to gamble Sunday evening at Michigan International Speedway, only one did not pit at the end of the second stage under threatening skies.

But that gamble was short-lived after the team pitted before the ensuing restart and gave the lead to Clint Bowyer, who went on to win.

It was shocking that more teams outside the top 10 did not stay out and gamble with low-hanging clouds, rain on the way and the race past the point where it was an official event and could end at any time.

“Part of you wants to stay out, but part of you wants to play the safe bet and try to outsmart those guys another way,” said Erik Jones, who was ninth at the end of the second stage and went on to finish 15th.

Crew chiefs said they were tricked by a sneaky weather system that made it appear as if several more laps would be run. Instead, the race went only 13 more laps after the second stage before rain ended the event.

For a brief time, Kasey Kahne was in position to steal the victory. He was 24th when the second stage ended. Everybody in front of him pitted. Crew chief Travis Mack had Kahne stay out and assume the lead under the caution.

“The rain was right on top of us,’’ Mack told NBC Sports, noting he and his team monitored four different radar applications from the pit box. “We knew it was a couple of minutes. We banked on those couple of pace laps and we could ride around and hope for rain. We knew if it started sprinkling, they wouldn’t go back green. So we had a couple minute window. If it started raining, we could have won the race.

“Just trying to put ourself in an opportunity to take advantage of something like that. If (other teams are) going to try to hand it to us, we’ll take every advantage to take it.’’

Mack had gambled earlier in the race. He called for a two-tire change at the end of the first stage, putting Kahne in the lead after he had finished that stage 18th.

Kahne led nine laps until Lap 71. He steadily fell back and was 14th on Lap 80. He pitted with the field after Kyle Larson’s spin brought out the caution on Lap 87. Kahne was mired outside the top 20 after that.

When the second stage ended, Kahne’s chance arrived.

He led two laps after those in front pitted, but then he went to pit road on Lap 125 with one lap to go until the race restarted.

With the radar changing, making it seem rain would not come soon, and Kahne on older tires, Mack brought his driver in.

“We did everything we could,’’ Mack said. “We were trying to make something happen.’’

Matt Borland, crew chief for Ty Dillon, admits that staying out would have been the “right call” but said he didn’t take the gamble — even though Dillon was outside the top 20 at the end of the second stage — because “we weren’t fast enough today.

“To have 30 laps on tires and put yourself in a situation where you can’t even get to the next (fuel) window, so now you’re going to be slow, (have to) pit an extra time; you take yourself from 20th-place position to 30th, three laps down.”

Dillon finished 21st, tied for his best finish in the last five races.

The field ran three laps in the final stage before the caution came out when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. crashed after contact from Kahne. Rain fell. After four laps, NASCAR sent the cars to pit road and the race was over. Kahne finished 23rd.

Mack said he was “very surprised” nobody else tried his strategy.

Ryan Newman was 19th when the second stage ended and crew chief Luke Lambert is known for his gambling ways. Lambert’s decision not to pit late at Phoenix in March 2017 led to Newman’s most recent victory.

Lambert said Mother Nature fooled him Sunday.

We were running like two or three different weather applications and looking at everything,’’ Lambert told NBC Sports. “Honestly it was probably one of the most challenging calls to make as far as what the weather was going to do. It’s easy to make these decisions when you’ve got a clear storm front coming in and there’s a hard line on it’s going to rain and it’s this many miles out and it’s tracking at this speed and we can calculate pretty much on the point when it’s going to hit.

“This scenario was not one like that. What we had going on was there was a front to our west and it was breaking up. It looked like it was splitting to the north and the south (of the track). What we were concerned would happen ended up happening, but we couldn’t guarantee it .

“It just built right on top of us. It wasn’t something that was moving toward us at a trajectory we could anticipate. At the point in time, when we were making our decision for the last stage, it looked pretty clear like we were going to keep running.

“I did not expect … that we were going to have that short of a run and then get misted on and end the day.’’

Bubba Wallace was running outside the top 20 at the end of the second stage and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said the radar kept him from pitting.

“The actual green stuff (signifying rain) was probably 30 miles away,’’ he told NBC Sports. “This mist wasn’t on the radar. It kind of caught us.’’

Because of that, Bowyer was able to emerge with the win due to a gamble by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. Bowyer was second at the end of the second stage and Bugarewicz called for a two-tire change to get his driver back on track quickly.

“When we were coming on pit road, I was 100 percent sure two tires was the right call,’’ Bugarewicz said. “We got about three quarters of the way down pit road, I was about 70 percent sure. When he slid into the pit box, I was about 50 percent sure. By then, we were leaving. It was too late (to change).

“Clint asked, Are we the only one with two?

“Yeah, we’re the only one with two.’’

Bowyer held off teammate Kevin Harvick on the restart and used that pit strategy to win.

“It was a gamble on his part,’’ Bowyer said of Bugarwicz’s call. “Like I said, it was uncharacteristic for him. That’s part of growing, blossoming as a crew chief, being one of the elite. He did that today.’’

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