Pit Road Miscues Shape Fortunes Of Playoff Drivers

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Kyle Busch was one of several drivers hampered by pit road penalties Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

JOLIET, Ill. — Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway 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 gave fans a few different examples of that.

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 and came down pit road on lap 30 to fix the damage and get a fresh set of tires.

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, 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 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,” Stenhouse 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 10 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.

Martin Truex Jr. (78) leads Kyle Busch Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

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 15 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 weeks ago.

But 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.

Sunday was a particularly awkward situation for Busch, since Joe Gibbs Racing had decided in the week leading up to this race to swap his 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 when he is angry: short, biting words and a painfully visible frustration in both facial expressions and voice.

“We had such a fast Skittles Sweet Heat Camry,” Busch 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.”

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