By David Morgan, Associate Editor
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – With the thrill of victory, there is always the agony of defeat and there was plenty of the latter to go around for Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Denny Hamlin Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
As Kyle Busch basked in his second Cup Series championship, the other three championship contenders could do no more than watch Busch’s burnout down the frontstretch and wonder what more they could have done for them to be the ones celebrating instead of the driver of the No. 18 Toyota.
Truex came the closest to unseating Busch from the championship throne and looked to be the driver to beat early on in the Ford EcoBoost 400, leading 98 of the first 120 laps and taking the first stage win, but during a round of green flag pit stops midway through the race, a pit road miscue nearly derailed the entire night for the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
During the pit stop, the left side tires were pit on the right side and vice versa, forcing Truex to have to make a second trip down pit road, eventually falling a lap down as a result. Luckily for Truex, the number of cars he put a lap down during his time in the lead played to his favor, as did a caution on lap 138 for a slide by John Hunter Nemechek in Turn 2.
Courtesy of being the first car a lap down, Truex moved back to the lead lap and rallied back to challenge for the lead later in the race. Pit strategy ultimately became Truex’s undoing, staying out on track four laps later than Busch in an effort to gain an advantage, but by the time everything cycled out, he was more than eight seconds behind.
Though Truex closed that gap to 4.578 seconds by the time the checkered flag flew, it was too little, too late for the 2017 series champion, coming home as the runner-up in the championship for a second straight season.
“When things like that happen all you can do is do your best,” Truex said of rebounding from the pit road issue. “Just try to forget about it and make it up. We got most of the way back there, just not quite all of the way. It’s unfortunate. I thought we were going to be okay and then the start of the third stage I had to restart third and I wish I would’ve let Denny (Hamlin) beat me off of the pit road restart and restart fourth.
“I felt like if we could’ve got by him there we would’ve had a shot at it. I just got blitzed on the outside by a few guys there on the restart with the 20 (Erik Jones) and the 22 (Joey Logano) and those guys. I had to race them so hard it hurt my right-front tire and then that whole run I just faded and got tight and lost all of my track position. At the end, we were way faster but just too much ground to make up.
“Unfortunate, but that’s the way it goes. We tried hard, we had a hell of a season and congrats to the 18 bunch.”
Harvick entered the day as the underdog of the championship bunch, with JGR holding onto three entries in the title fight, while Harvick was the lone gunman for Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford.
Leading the first 20 laps of the race, Harvick seemed to be the driver to beat on restarts, leading three times for 41 laps. As the last of the four championship contenders to make it to pit road during the final stage, Harvick and his No. 4 team were betting on a notorious late caution at Homestead to fall their way, but the caution never came and Harvick came home fourth in the running order to take home third in the championship battle.
“We just needed to do something different,” Harvick said of his team’s pit strategy play. “They were so much better than us on the long run, that was our best chance, to have a caution there at the end and we never got one. We did something different, hoping for a caution. We had to do the opposite and it just didn’t work out.
“On the restarts I could do what I wanted to do and hold them off for 15 or 20 laps. This race has come down to that every year. You kind of play toward that and they were quite a bit better than us on the long run. We had a really good car for those first 15-20 laps on the restarts and had a lot of speed, we just never got to try to race for it there with the caution.”
And then there’s Hamlin, the only driver of the four without a championship when the day started. Though he came into the weekend full of confidence that this was his year, things didn’t exactly go to plan for the No. 11 team.
Struggling with handling issues when the race started in full sunshine, Hamlin did his best to bide his time, hoping that his car would come to life as night fell in South Florida and that’s exactly what happened as the race entered its final stretch.
After making his final pit stop of the night, Hamlin’s team elected to put tape on the front of the car to try and help the handling even further, but in the end, it was that decision that doomed Hamlin’s shot at the title.
Shortly after returning to the track, Hamlin reported overheating issues that in turn led to water getting pushed out of the overflow. As a result, Hamlin had to make another trip to pit road and was only able to manage a 10th place finish to end the season fourth in points.
“We put too much tape on,” Hamlin said. “Chris (Gabehart, crew chief) is really aggressive with his calls and he tried to add some tape there and it just overheated. All of my gauges were pegged and they peg it up a really high number so we weren’t going to make it. But, I’ve got to say thank you to TRD for that thing staying together. That is unbelievable.
“A hell of a season by our guys. We gave ourselves a shot. At the end there we woke up and I really just wanted a chance to go after them after that pit stop, but with the overheating I was going to blow up so I had to make the right call and try to un-lap ourselves and try to get a caution and try for a miracle. It stinks, but also we had a great year.”