Prior to Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Joe Gibbs Racing elected to swap the pit crews between the No. 18 and No. 19 cars, giving Kyle Busch the crew that had been working with Daniel Suarez and vice versa for the crew that was working with Busch, as they moved over to service Suarez’s car for the playoffs.
The swap was supposed to help Busch in his efforts to be faster on pit road as he battles for his second Cup Series championship, but on Sunday, the crew did more harm than good, with two pit road issues hampering Busch and allowing him to only manage a 15th place finish on the day.
“We had such a fast Skittles Sweet Heat Camry,” said Busch. “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.”
Busch had been blazing fast throughout the weekend, winning the pole and posting the fastest times in two of the three practice sessions on the 1.5-mile oval. That speed would carry over to race day as Busch led 85 of the first 87 laps to win the first stage and establish himself as one of the cars to beat throughout the remainder of the race.
However, things would begin to unravel for Busch and his team in the second stage as he would have to make an unscheduled stop for a loose wheel on lap 95. If having to pit unexpectedly wasn’t bad enough, Busch’s crew was hit with a penalty on that stop for crew members over the wall too soon, resulting in Busch having to make another trip down pit road for a pass-through penalty.
After two consecutive pit road visits under green, Busch dropped all the way back to 29th and was scored two laps down.
By lap 112, Busch raced his way past the leaders to get one of his laps back, but was still mired outside the top-20 halfway through the second stage. By the time the green-checkered flag flew to signal the end of the second stage, Busch had climbed up to 16th, still one lap down.
Over the course of the final stage, Busch would move his way into the Lucky Dog spot and 15th place, needing a caution to get back on the lead lap and put the speed in his Toyota to use, but alas, that caution never came and that is where Busch would end the day.
Leaving Chicago, Busch sits fifth in points and still has a sizable 35-point gap over the elimination cut-off with two races remaining in the Round of 16.
After the race, Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens addressed the pit road issues and just what went wrong.
“Just poor execution all around,” said Stevens. “Made a lot of mistakes on pit road and when you make back to back mistakes, it’s tough to recover from it. 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, best car I’ve been a part of here and just not much to show for it.”
“The right rear tire was loose and then in the midst of pitting and putting four tires on it, the jack man was in the box. Not the jack man, I’m sorry – the gas man, but he didn’t have a can in his hand and that’s too many men over the wall. Didn’t aid the pit stop, but it’s a rule plain as day, we all know the rule and we broke the rule.”
As far as whether the pit crew swap will stay in place going forward, Stevens seemed to think the crews would remain in place for the foreseeable future.
“I’m just one man, I don’t have the ultimate say. It was a company decision to make the change that we made. I wouldn’t expect that to change. Like I said, it was a company-wide decision. I’m confident we made the right one, it was just a bad day.”