Billy Scott

Playoff bubble growing more intense

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — Even with all the reassurances from his team that he had enough fuel, Daniel Suarez worried.

Others ahead of him had to pit in the final laps of Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway. Suarez was headed for a top-five finish … or a finish outside the top 20 if he ran out of fuel. With every point critical in his bid to make the playoffs, the final laps left Suarez on edge.

“Even when they are telling me we think you are good to go, that always makes me a little nervous,” Suarez said.

He had enough fuel and finished fifth.

Ryan Newman, also fighting for one of the final playoff spots, ran out. But he ran out of fuel off Turn 4 on the final lap and finished 12th.

Newman’s run moved him to 15th in the standings with three races left in the regular season. He has a 10-point lead on Clint Bowyer, who holds the 16th and final playoff spot.

Suarez is next, six points behind Bowyer. Jimmie Johnson, who hit the wall early, fell to 12 points behind Bowyer.

“I think it was a solid run,” Suarez said of his run. “We didn’t have a clean day. Stage 2 we’re not sure what happened there, a bad set of tires or something, but the car went from being in the top 10 to 30th. We put on a different set of tires and a little adjustment and the car was back. It wasn’t like we had a perfect day, but we were able to overcome.”

That’s what the weekend was about for Suarez. His incident in Saturday’s final practice session damaged the right rear of the car. That incident was triggered by a punctured tire.

“We were extremely lucky the way it hit,” crew chief Billy Scott said of Suarez’s crash on Saturday. “It wasn’t major damage. It was a quarter panel and bumper cover, and it actually bent the spoiler but did not damage the deck lid, and that’s a big difference.”

The team made repairs instead of going to a backup car and having to start at the rear.

“Everybody did a great job of getting it back real close,” Scott said. “I feel like the car was just as good as it was (Saturday).”

Newman continues to grind out finishes to keep him in the hunt for a playoff spot.

“We’re taking advantage of their misfortune,” crew chief Scott Graves said of the incidents that Bowyer and Johnson had. “It wasn’t the day we were hoping for or thought we would have after practice (Saturday). Because of that, it was hard to catch any track position. We had a plan, obviously, being aggressive like everyone else, trying to get some of that track position.”

Graves noted that with the problems to Bowyer and Johnson, he changed to a more conservative tactic. It worked.

Newman was 15th when the caution came out. He pitted with the field. Newman came back down pit road on the next lap to top off on fuel.

That proved to be the key call, allowing him to finish the race as he ran out instead of running out a lap earlier and losing several positions.

Others were not as fortunate. Bowyer was hit from behind by Paul Menard and sent into the wall. Bowyer finished 37th in the 38-car field.

“As soon as it happened, I was just along for the ride,” Bowyer said. “I don’t know. We have to get something figured out with these race tracks. We are really fast by ourselves, practice and qualifying really well, in the top five almost every single time but then we start the race and don’t make the grip we need to compete.

“We definitely need to find some things out. You can talk about the bubble and worrying about points, but I am way more worried about getting established and running up front at these types of race tracks. If you make the playoffs and can’t compete in it, then what is the use? We have some things to work out. We have some time. We have some good racetracks for us including Bristol coming up. We have plenty of racing, but we have to get some things figured out.”

Missed opportunities: Pit call, flat tire leave Daniel Suarez short on points

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SPARTA, Ky. — After winning the pole Friday, Daniel Suarez, who has yet to score a Cup victory, noted that the past two races had first-time winners.

“Why not have a third one?” Suarez asked, clearly meaning him.

But missed opportunities and misfortune Saturday night kept his winless streak alive and also left him still outside a playoff spot on a night when he could have scored more points. He wasn’t the only one who lost a chance at a better result. A restart cost William Byron. A pit road penalty stymied Denny Hamlin.

It was Suarez, though, who was hurt the most Saturday night.

He entered the race three points out of a playoff spot. As the pole-sitter, he was in position to score stage points, while Ryan Newman, who held the final playoff spot entering the night, started at the rear because his car failed inspection.

Everything was there for Suarez to take advantage of Newman’s situation.

Suarez didn’t.

A pit call backfired and Suarez finished the first stage 14th, failing to score any stage points, after leading the first 49 laps. It marked the first time since Auto Club Speedway in March that the pole-sitter did not score points in the opening stage.

“I feel like the first stage, I feel like the call that we made on four tires instead of two tires, that kind of messed us up a little bit,” Suarez told NBC Sports.

Crew chief Billy Scott had Suarez stop for four tires under caution at Lap 49. Problem was that two cars, including winner Kurt Busch, took no tires and 10 cars took two tires. Suarez was the first car with four tires, but he restarted 13th.

“Really thought that we had run far enough at that point … that it would be the first of our two opportunities to put lefts on (for a four-tire change),” Scott told NBC Sports. “From those lefts there, you only needed them one more time.

“That was kind of the root of it. In hindsight, there were a lot of cars that took two tires and that kind of hurt. Restarting 13th and on the bottom (lane), and that was a big difference, too. Probably the only thing that is regretful with that is that we ended up not getting any stage points. Where we’re at in points, that’s important. Not getting stage points out of that deal definitely hurt and something we question for sure. After that, what really got us was our flat tire.”

That happened in the second stage. Suarez pitted on Lap 107 and was penalized for speeding. He fell two laps down and went three laps down on Lap 143.

With the pit call in the first stage and the flat tire in the second stage, Suarez scored no stage points.

That he got back on the lead lap and finished eighth consoled Suarez only so much.

“Bad decisions, little bad luck but were able to recover for a decent finish,” Suarez said of his night.

“We showed that we had the speed, so we just have to keep that one up.”

Problem was that Newman finished ninth. Suarez scored 29 points Saturday. Newman had 28.

Newman fell out of the final playoff spot. Erik Jones moved into that spot with his third-place finish, scoring 43 points. Suarez trails Jones by four points for that spot.

Byron is in a more comfortable position than Suarez in the season standings. Byron is 12th in the standings and is 46 points ahead of Newman, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.

Byron appeared headed for a strong run before he was penalized on Lap 184 for jumping the restart. He restarted second to Clint Bowyer, who brought the cars through the restart zone slowly.

“(Bowyer) dragged it way down in the restart zone,” Byron told NBC Sports, “and I still, obviously kind of peddled it a little bit and got in front of him and gave it back and went with him after that and still got called for it. I don’t know. I felt like I gave enough back.”

Asked if he would talk to NASCAR about it, Byron said: “I understand the rule. I don’t think it was necessary to call it. It wasn’t like I killed him into Turn 1. I don’t know.”

Byron fell a lap down and finished 18th.

Hamlin also was frustrated despite finishing fifth. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire on Lap 147 derailed Hamlin’s hopes of winning and scoring more playoff points.

Unlike Suarez and Byron, who are winless this year, Hamlin has two victories and is bound for the playoffs.

Still, the penalty stung.

“That kind of sealed our fate to try to win,” Hamlin said. “Certainly we rallied. The reason we had a top-five finish was because we had a fast car and had some good restarts at the end and was able to get back up there.

“I’m ecstatic that we have race-winning speed every single week, but certainly we’ve got to tighten up the execution a little bit. Once we do that, we’ll be pretty good.”

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Penalty report from Michigan International Speedway

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Three crew chiefs have been fined for unsecured lug nuts during the NASCAR race weekend in Michigan.

Trent Owens, crew chief on Chris Buescher‘s No. 37 Chevrolet, and Billy Scott, crew chief on Daniel Suarez‘s No. 41 Ford, were fined $10,000 apiece for having one unsecured lug nut after the Cup race.

In the Xfinity Series, Randall Burnett, crew chief for race winner Tyler Reddick was fined $5,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

NASCAR also announced the indefinite suspension of Taylor J. Morse for behavioral level penalties, including violating its substance abuse policy.

Penalty report from Pocono

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NASCAR issued its weekly penalty report on Tuesday, with two individuals incurring violations. Here are the penalties issued:

  • Billy Scott, crew chief for the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang driven by Daniel Suarez, was fined $10,000 for loose or missing lug nuts discovered after Sunday’s Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway. It was the second time Scott has been penalized this season for a lug nut violation (also penalized after Dover).
  • The only other penalty was an indefinite suspension from NASCAR competition of Cup crew member John J. Graybeal for several violations, most notably the sport’s substance abuse policy, as listed in the NASCAR Rule Book. Graybeal also was penalized for violating behavioral general procedure and member conduct policies, but was not penalized for any confrontation with a NASCAR official, a NASCAR spokesman told NBC Sports.

No other penalties were assessed.

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Penalty report from Dover

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NASCAR has penalized the crew chiefs of two Cup teams for unsecured lug nut violations incurred in Monday’s Gander RV 400 at Dover International Speedway.

Billy Scott, crew chief for the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Daniel Suarez, and Chad Johnston, crew chief for the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driven by Kyle Larson, were fined $10,000 apiece for unsecured lug nuts on their respective cars.

Larson finished third, his best showing of the season, while Suarez finished 11th.

There were no other violations in the Cup, Xfinity or Truck Series.

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