With a fast car and a hunger to end a 76-race winless streak, few in the field had anything for Roush Fenway Racing’s Matt Kenseth Saturday night in Texas. Leading more laps than he had in all of 2010, Kenseth scored his first victory since sweeping the opening weekends in 2009.
“It’s been a long time,” Kenseth said. “You talk about the second place finishes here, and I got beaten at the end of a lot of these races. It’s great to finish second if you can’t win. But another way is like getting kicked in the gut. You have to come back.”
While Kenseth dominated Saturday night’s race, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart tried to make it interesting, using pit strategy to try and stretch their fuel to the end and steal a win. With the leaders peeling onto pit road in the closing laps, it became more and more apparent the gambles would not pay off and they would be the ones getting kicked in the gut.
Green flag pit stops were the name of the game Saturday, as the race was slowed only five times for cautions. Fighting to overcome early struggles, Busch’s crew chief Steve Addington and Stewart’s crew chief Darian Grubb knew it would take a gamble to get their cars in contention for a solid finish.
During the opening stages of the race, Busch fought an ill-handling car and struggled to keep up with the changing track conditions. Their alternative pit strategy started from the first round of stops, when the No. 22 and teammate Brad Keselowski opted not to pit. Staying out, Busch and Keselowski battled for the lead with Kenseth after the restart.
On that first stop where the Penske teammates stayed out, Stewart had his first troubles of the night. Exiting the stall after completing service, the No. 14 hit the No. 36 of Dave Blaney as he was coming in to his stall. The contact sent Blaney spinning and damaged the right front fender on Stewart’s car.
As Kenseth, Busch and Keselowski battled for the lead it became clear the Penske teammates would have to render their track position and hit pit road before the rest of the leaders. However, when David Gilliland hit the wall on Lap 47, the pair were saved from pitting under green and put on the same sequence as the rest of the field.
When the field headed to pit road on Lap 116 under the third caution of the day, the Penske teammates again opted for a different strategy than the leaders, this time taking only two tires. Restarting out front, those on fresher tires eventually retook command of the race as Busch and Keselowski fell backwards.
With the race stretching through a long green flag run, Busch began to lose the handle on his car as the track transitioned from day to night.
“I’m tired of working this hard,” Busch said on the radio. “I mean every single race I have to drive it over my head.”
As frustration mounted for Busch, Addington was hard at working figuring out a strategy that would get them a solid day.
While Busch was struggling, Stewart’s No. 14 was coming back to life. With the damage patched up on the right front, Grubb told his driver to stretch the fuel. When green flag stops began to cycle through on Lap 200, Stewart was the last lead lap car to pit on Lap 206. Emerging a lap down in 12th, Stewart caught a break when the fourth caution flew on Lap 208 allowing him to get the free pass and back on the lead lap.
Breaking into the top 10 for the first time on Lap 237, things were beginning to come together for Stewart as the final 100 laps clicked away.
As green flag stops once again got underway when Kenseth pitted from the lead on Lap 251, it was clear Busch and Stewart were ready to gamble. Stretching their fuel mileage further than any others, Busch hit pit road from the lead on Lap 271 and Stewart pitted with the lead on Lap 276. While Busch’s stop was clean, Stewart was tagged by NASCAR for speeding on the entrance of pit road.
After being busted, Stewart said on the radio, “Sorry, I knew I did it.”
Back in 16th, Stewart and Grubb remained confident they would make it the distance on fuel, while others would have to stop one more time.
When the leaders headed to pit road under green flag conditions with less than 40 laps to go, Addington and Grubb again kept their drivers on track to stretch the fuel mileage.
Taking the lead on Lap 297, Busch began to distance the field as he attempted to go as long as possible before coming in for service. With 30 laps to go, Busch maintained a 15 second lead over Kenseth. Losing six-tenths of a second a lap, Kenseth closed the gap as Busch ran around on older tires.
Forced to pit with 13 laps to go, Busch took only two tires and fuel as Kenseth and the rest of the leaders drove past. When the checkered flag fell, Busch was 10th, the same place he started.
With Kenseth cruising to the win, Stewart battled with Carl Edwards for the third spot. Taking the white flag, the tank ran dry and Stewart was out of gas. Coasting across the finish line, Stewart would go from contending for third to finishing 12th, the last car on the lead lap.
“You know, it took almost the whole race to crack the top-10, so to be in the position we were in there at the end, I guess is a good thing,” Stewart said. “But when you’re in that position and you can’t capitalize, it’s pretty frustrating. Speeding on pit road didn’t exactly help the cause either.”
One week after vigorously denying they had not gambled with their calls on pit road, Grubb lost out on a solid finish when their strategy came up one lap short. For much of the season, mistakes on pit road, along with penalties and pure luck have kept this team from capitalizing on their decisions.
For Busch, on the other hand, Saturday night was more of the same in the car. Extremely critical of the team, Addington and the cars on the radio nearly every week, the team’s failed strategy Saturday night was simply a continuation of their year-long struggles.
“Just a hard-fought battle all night,” said Busch. “We qualified 10th, finished 10th. We led laps when we were off-sequence, but overall a hard fought battle to get the car dialed-in once again. We struggle to make adjustments as we go. We got something towards the end to make something of it. Overall, we got off-sequence which might have helped preserve that top 10. It’s tough. We want to compete for top fives and wins and we’re only getting top 10s right now.”
“A little rough tonight,” Addington said. “I didn’t think we would be that much off to start the race. It seemed like when we adjusted on the car, we would get different results. It’s a bit of a mystery. We had to use some different strategy and we really shouldn’t have to do that. We should be up front challenging for wins. We just need to get a handle on this thing right now. I’m proud of everyone on this team who worked so hard on the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. We did what we had to do to manufacturer a top-10 finish.”
As the season approaches the one-fourth mark, these two teams have had consistent issues nearly every week. Still very much in contention – Busch is fifth in points, while Stewart is 10th – the issues plaguing these two organizations need to be solved in order to be a championship caliber team.