Strategy derails Hendrick cars at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — A critical pit call gone wrong and a NASCAR vehicle breaking down on the track played a key role in keeping Hendrick Motorsports drivers out of Victory Lane and some outside the top 15 Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

With Hendrick the favorite at a 1.5-mile track, it wasn’t surprising that all of its cars ran in the top four during Sunday night’s playoff race, but things soured early in the second stage.

While Chase Elliott recovered to finish second, his teammates did not fare as well. Kyle Larson – who won at this track in the spring and led 95 laps Sunday – was 10th, William Byron finished 18th and Alex Bowman placed 22nd.

The result is that Byron and Bowman head into next weekend’s race at Talladega below the cutline.

Sunday’s race turned for the Hendrick drivers when Joey Gase crashed and brought out the caution on Lap 93 of the 267-lap race. The incident came five laps after the second stage began.

Byron led and was followed by Larson, eventual winner Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Elliott. Bowman was 10th.

The field had pitted after the first stage a few laps earlier. So, the Hendrick cars of Byron, Larson, Elliott and Bowman were among seven cars stayed out. The rest of the field came to pit road.

“At the end of the day, in hindsight, it was 100% a blown call on all four Hendrick cars, and I certainly own my part in that,” said Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Larson.

Rudy Fugle, crew chief for Byron, said it was tough to give up the lead at that point in the race.

“You have that track position, you’re just outside the window of making it (to the end of the second stage) and it ends up being a long cleanup, so you get more caution laps than you’re supposed to get,” Fugle said. “It’s one of those deals where it’s way easier to be 10th than it is to be the leader.”

What made the call to stay out curious was the recent trend for Las Vegas. The last three Cup races at this track did not have a caution in the second stage. The Hendrick crew chiefs were counting on a caution to happen this time.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Hamlin, said this was the key point of the race.

“I was confident we were doing the right thing,” Gabehart said of pitting while the Hendrick cars did not. “It was just really at a critical point in the stage where it wasn’t obvious that it opened a window for everyone. But it turned out that that’s the way it played out. That was right at the edge of our fuel window. After you run a few cautions, it’s going to put us well within it.

It’s rare when you can look to one singular point in the race and that was the turning point in the race, but it really was. Hendrick cars are always strong at these tracks. I’m not saying we weren’t good. We were certainly capable. That gave us the leg up that we needed to take control of the race.”

Hendrick cars led 103 of the first 152 laps. No Hendrick car led during the final 115 laps. That’s when Hamlin took control, leading 98 of those laps.

Daniels explained why he did not pit Larson.

“There have been playoff races where you get a lot of cautions and they just continue,” Daniels said. “What happened to us in the spring (at Las Vegas) … in the middle of the stage 2, a caution, five laps later another caution, five laps later another caution.

“One time, we screwed that up. Another time, we benefitted substantially from that. I was a little more anticipating this is a quick caution. We’re either going to have another quick caution or we’re going to go long and everybody is still going to have to pit. Thinking we were going to be like two laps short, no reason to put yourself in that position.”

Things changed during that caution when the chase vehicle – which includes a NASCAR official and a medic and is dispatched to each on-track incident – broke down on the backstretch and needed to be towed. That extended the caution two laps.

Suddenly, those cars that pitted were in position to make it to the end of stage 2. The Hendrick cars and others that did not pit could not make it to the end of the stage.

When the race went green all the way to the end of the second stage, the Hendrick cars had to pit.

Compounding issues for Byron was that the team had trouble with the right front tire. Seeing the trouble, Fugle changed strategy and called for a two-tire stop instead of four tires to stay only one lap down. Byron managed to finish the stage as the first car on the lead lap, getting the free pass.

But not getting another caution in the stage cost all four Hendrick cars a change to finish the stage in the top 10 and score any stage points.

Maybe those lost points won’t matter. But Byron, who scored six points in the first stage, is four points below the cutline. Bowman, who did not score any stage points, is 13 points below the cutline.

“It’s unfortunate,” Fugle said of the situation. “We’ll learn from it and we’ll get better.”

Said Daniels: “All of us made a terrible call.”

Even with those challenges, Elliott raced his way back to the lead lap in the second stage, putting him in position to score a runner-up finish.

Byron was running fifth when he hit something on the track and suffered a flat tire with less than 45 laps left in the race. That cost him a top-five finish.

“It just sucks,” Byron said. “Had an amazing car.”

Now, Byron is back below the cutline. Just as we he was in the first round.

“It seems like if we could have a smooth day, we could finish top three almost every time we go to a mile and a half,” he said. “We can do that like last week (at Bristol), we can finish top three pretty easily. I don’t know what we’ve got to do to have a smooth race. It seems like that is our problem.”

Bowman saw his hopes for a top 10 finish fade when he had to pit on Lap 212 for a flat tire after stopping the lap before.

“We weren’t great,” Bowman said. “The stage 2 strategy just didn’t work out for us and it put us in a tough spot there to start stage three. The valve stem got knocked off on a pit stop and the rest is history. Not a good day on any aspects. We had a decent car, we just didn’t have the pit road and strategy we needed.”