The #18 Skittles Sweet Heat Toyota, driven by Kyle Busch (not pictured), sits in the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 15, 2017 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
JOLIET, IL – Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, was the first race of the 10-race playoffs that will determine the series’ 2017 champion. It was defined mostly by the amount of pit road mishaps and penalties that occurred during the race – and how the playoff contenders affected battled back from them.
When errors occur on pit road, the natural goal for any team is to get back to where they were running before the mishaps. Depending on when the mistakes happen, that can be easy or very difficult to do. Sunday happened to give fans a few different examples.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was the first to run into trouble early on in the race. He clipped the wall in Turn 2 with his Fastenal Ford Fusion and came down the pit road on lap 30 to fix the damage and get a fresh set of tyres.
Having to come down for an unscheduled pit stop so early in the race already put Stenhouse behind, with a great deal of work required to make it back up through the field. But while he was coming down pit road the first time, he failed to get underneath the commitment line in time and had to serve a pass-through penalty on the very next lap.
At that point in the race, he was buried two laps down, and with the race running green for the majority of its duration, he could only get back one of his laps. He was headed for a finish in the mid-teens when he was caught speeding exiting the pit road with 30 laps to go, which sent him back to 27th for the final restart. With the damage already on his car and the general lack of speed he possessed, Stenhouse could only gain two more positions to finish 25th.
Stenhouse knew he had hurt his own cause more than anything on the day, and this was made evident in what was a short post-race interview. “With so few cautions, we weren’t able to get back on the lead lap”, he said. “It’s definitely not the race we wanted to kick off the Playoffs. We head to Loudon next, which is usually a decent track for us”.
It now is an uphill battle for Stenhouse to make the round of 12, largely because of the two pit road mistakes he made. Depending on how the next two races go, he may rue them as the reason why he gets eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, especially since he entered with only ten playoff points.
By no means is his chance to advance gone – he’s only four points outside the cutoff at the moment – but there will be added pressure to perform on driver and team at New Hampshire. The intangible weight of that pressure will affect how the No. 17 crew goes about their business in their Mooresville, N.C. race shop during the week: at this point in the season, there is no escaping it.
The story was similar for Kyle Busch: pit road mistakes cost him a shot at victory, which he had a decent chance of grabbing after the way he dominated Stage 1. He led 85 of the 87 laps in that stage and had put all but fifteen cars in the field a lap down by its conclusion. Everything at that point was shaping up to be another dominant performance from Busch, similar to what he was able to turn in at Bristol four weekends ago.
Disaster struck on lap 96, when Busch made an unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel which did not have all of its lug nuts secured. As he was coming down for that pit stop, one of his pit crew members came over the pit wall too soon, and NASCAR slapped Busch with a pass-through penalty.
It was a particularly awkward situation, since Joe Gibbs Racing had decided in the week leading up to this race to swap Busch’s regular pit crew with that of Daniel Suárez. The No. 19 pit crew had been faster on average than Busch’s own pit crew throughout the regular season, so the thinking was that Busch would have better chances to gain track position off of pit road if he had the faster pit crew.
In wake of the mistake, it was a decision that backfired spectacularly. After the miscues, he was two laps down and 30th in the running order. Though he still had one of the fastest cars in the running order, the green-flag conditions kept him from being able to get his laps back and he could only finish 15th.
It was a run that prompted the typical response from NASCAR’s most temperamental driver: short, biting words and a painfully visible frustration in both facial expressions and voice.
“We had such a fast Skittles Sweet Heat Camry”, he said post-race. “It’s just disappointing that we had trouble on pit road like that. We just never had the opportunity with how the cautions fell to get back on the lead lap. We’ll get back to the shop and talk about it, and really all we can do is move on and put it behind us”.
Even Busch’s Crew Chief, Adam Stevens, was glum when speaking about the matter, knowing that they had a car much faster than their finish indicated. “It was just poor execution all around. We made a lot of mistakes on pit road and when you make back to back mistakes, it’s tough to recover from it”, he said.
“A track like this, everybody 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, the best car I’ve been a part of here and just not much to show for it.”
Busch’s day underscores another point that is worth noting: when drivers and teams make mistakes on the pit road, they cede the ability to control their own destiny within a race. Once he was mired back in traffic, Busch was in need of multiple cautions in order to get his laps back and race his way through the field. Unfortunately for him, they really never came, and he ended up with a disappointing result that was more his team’s fault than his own.
Interestingly, Busch now becomes the first test case to measure the new playoff points system that was introduced at the start of the season. It was designed to reward drivers who succeeded in the regular season, and in part to provide a buffer against any bad runs that might occur in the playoffs. For Busch, that is precisely how his playoff points are functioning at the moment: without them, he would be six points clear of the cutoff, instead of the 29 he currently sits ahead of the cutoff by. That, combined with the speed he has shown just about every week this season, means that his situation is much less dire than Stenhouse’s: he just needs to return back to usual form this Sunday at New Hampshire.
Stevens will be the main man tasked with righting Busch’s mental state for next weekend, and the answers he gave on Sunday indicate that he is up for that task over the next few days.
There was a level-headedness in his answer that exemplifies why his calmer nature balances out Busch’s fire so well. “That’s what the Playoffs are all about. It’s all about surviving and advancing”, Stevens said post-race. “We had a car that was capable of competing for the win and we took ourselves out of that. We still have to salvage the best possible finish you can and move on to the next round and we did score a playoff point and we get to take that with us. I’ve had bad days, but I’ve certainly had worse days”.
While Busch didn’t end up with the finish he wanted, Martin Truex, Jr. came home with a massive victory to lock himself into the Round of 12 already. He too was one of the drivers that ran into trouble on pit road, and spent a good chunk of the day battling adversity — just as he did a year ago to win this race, when he came back from a flat tire to win.
It was a poor start to Truex’s race, as he was one of the first driver to be caught speeding on pit road at lap 39. This meant that he spent the rest of Stage 1 battling back towards the front of the field, which to his credit, he did, finishing 10th by the time the first green chequered flag of the day came out.
Things appeared as if they would be fine for Truex and company, but his crew only got three lug nuts tight on the right rear tyre in the pit stop between stages. Truex had to come back around to get the lug nuts tightened and started Stage 2 from the tail end of the lead lap cars.
From that point on, Truex was flawless, and drove back through the field again. The No. 78 led 77 of the last 78 laps to win the race and cement his status as the best intermediate-track driver in the series at the moment.
Truex spoke for a long while about how last year’s experience with the flat tire probably helped him this time around. “You never know how those things are going to go”, he said. “I was like, Here we go. It’s like last year all over again. Last year here we had the tire unravel and lost a lap. I thought to myself, At least this year we stayed in the lead lap with our troubles. We’d been in this position before”.
“The good thing, if you’re going to have trouble, you want it to be at a place like Chicago, where the track is so wide, there’s so many options. I felt like I could run almost anywhere on the racetrack today and make almost identical lap times. I could just go where the guys weren’t and get by them”.
For his troubles, Truex is now safely in the last 12, thanks to a car that had blistering pace and a mindset that allowed him to not lose his head when things went wrong. It is of course important to have a fast car every week in order to make a championship run, but in these playoffs, the value of a good mindset cannot be underrated. It will likely be the difference for at least one driver between just making it to Homestead and winning the Monster Energy Cup.