By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Pit road proved to be the monstrous difference for the playoff fates of John Hunter Nemechek and Justin Haley in Saturday’s Use Your Melon. Drive Sober 200 at Dover International Speedway.
Neither driver advanced into the Round of 8 and will now have to focus on being best of the rest, which is fifth in points with four races remaining.
Nemechek appeared to be the only man on the outside looking in who could stop Michel Annett, who held the eighth and final playoff spot by 11 points, from moving onto the next round.
This was proven when Nemechek was faster and out performing Annett in the first two stages. It would go downhill for the pilot of the No. 23 ACME Chevrolet Camaro when he pitted prior to the final stage commencing.
At first, a strong stop by Nemechek got him up to fourth but was snake bitten when he had to return into the pits for a loose lug nut.
Therefore, needing to scratch and claw his way towards the front, but it would become a complete afterthought as he struggled even staying on the lead lap due to a long green flag run.
Nemechek said that costly pit stop sucked and sums up his first full-season that’s been plagued with shortcomings.
“It just put us behind the 8-ball. We were in good position all day,” Nemechek said. “We came out of the pits fourth, but we didn’t have enough lug nuts on the left rear and had to come back down. You can’t have a loose wheel at Dover. It’s just something you don’t want to have under green.”
Then on Lap 176, Nemechek pitted for a scheduled stop. While pitting, Dillon Bassett spun in Turn 4 which brought out the caution as Annett stayed out.
Several laps later, another caution came out for a multi-car crash involving Ray Black, Jr., Stephen Leicht and Matt Mills in Turn 2. During that caution period, Nemechek pitted for fresh tires but it was all for not as he settled for eighth while Annett crossed the line in sixth, claiming the final spot by 10 points.
Nemechek commented that he knew he had to battle Annett all afternoon, but again referred the loose lug nut demoralized his race and postseason.
“I think we got the margin down to minus six or something like that after the first two stages. We’re executing like we needed to all day. We just haven’t been able to close this year. I feel like that’s been one of our struggles. Yet again, we struggled.
“Valiant effort for our GMS Racing team. Will see what we’ll have for the next few racetracks. Super bummed that we didn’t make it to the next round. Definitely wanted to prove a point what our team can do. We haven’t had the greatest year. It’s been an up-and-down roller coaster for sure. Overall, we came here trying to do something. We tried it, but it just didn’t work.”
After an untimely mechanical issue at the Charlotte Roval last Saturday, Haley’s true chance of sneaking his way into the next round was simply winning the 200-lap race.
Late race cautions would put the Kaulig Racing driver in promising position and with seven laps to go, Haley had a strong restart and within striking distance of battling for the win against Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier.
A tight No. 11 Leaf Filter Chevrolet Camaro did him in and could only salvage a fourth-place finish as Custer went on to win the race.
Disappointed Haley was after getting out of his car, but he remained optimistic about the difficult ordeal as he knew his No. 11 team will only get stronger.
“Excellent strategy by Kaulig Racing. This first round has been really hard for us,” Haley said. “We had a lot of bad luck that’s been out of our control. I feel like we’ve been a top-five car the whole playoffs, but we haven’t been able to show it because of all the bad luck.”
“Awesome job to Alex Yontz (Haley’s crew chief), Chris Rice (President of Kaulig Racing) and everyone at Kaulig Racing for making that awesome call. We were just a little too tight at the end to make anything happen.
“Live and learn but we’re really happy this team can get fourth. We’ve been in some dark times lately, so to turn around and get a good run means a lot. Hopefully, it should boost our confidence. We still got plenty of races to win and can get top-five in points this year.”
The eliminated drivers will now head into Kansas Speedway October 19, hungrier than ever to score a race win before the 2019 season wraps up.
For Nemechek, it’s getting another Kansas victory as his most recent triumph was last October when he brought Chip Ganassi Racing’s final Xfinity Series win. Haley on the other hand, it’s simply capturing his first win and the third for Kaulig Racing this season.