KANSAS CITY, KAN. - Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had the lead and the Roush-Fenway Racing car capable of taking him to the winner's circle with 60 laps to go at Kansas Speedway on Sunday.
Matt Kenseth (running in second place in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20), also looked to be coming to form just ahead of his final planned pit stop. Crew chief Steve Letarte asked his driver to zero in on his car's handling in order to make adjustments that would let Earnhardt catch the leaders.Dale Earnhardt Jr., chasing Stenhouse and
"We need a tenth (of a second) here," Letarte said over the team radio.
Stenhouse, with his fuel light flashing, came to pit road as he finished lap 215 for two tires and hopefully enough fuel to make it to the end. A lap later, Letarte brought Earnhardt Jr. to pit road as the green flag pit cycle began in earnest. Kenseth, still on track and now in the lead, made his preparations to pit. If all went well for each team, the cycle of pit stops would put those three back on track in similar positions for the battle to the end.
Then a chunk of sheet metal flew off Brad Keselowski's car. The caution flag waved. Kenseth, and a host of others, had yet to pit.
Stenhouse, Earnhardt and Carl Edwards (sixth before he pitted under green) were among the former leaders now trapped a lapped down. For them, it was swift punch to the gut. They would get a lap back during the caution flag when the race's leaders pitted due to NASCAR's wave-around rule, but the damage was done. Kansas wasn't supporting loads of passing during the second race on its newly-paved surface and Earnhardt (now 19th), Stenhouse (20th) and Edwards (23rd) could now only hope to salvage any positions they could in the race's closing laps.
"I just had an idea there that we was in big trouble and were going to have a hard time finishing as well as we were running," Earnhardt Jr. said.
Matt Kenseth, meanwhile, used his prime pit road position to keep hold of the lead during the caution flag and never lost the lead again. It wasn't easy for Kenseth — a charging Kasey Kahne rarely trailed by more than a second in the race's closing 43-lap run — but he surely breathed easier knowing Stenhouse and Earnhardt weren't also in the mix.
After the race, Earnhardt seemed a little confused how Stenhouse was instead eligible for NASCAR's free pass rule during the final caution flag. As the beneficiary of that rule, Stenhouse was able to pit again during the yellow flag to make some adjustments that improved the car in traffic. Earnhardt didn't get his lap back until the race was one lap from going green, making it impossible to pit for adjustments.
"We were still in the same position we were in, whether we were the 'Lucky Dog' or not but didn't get a chance to work on the car a little bit," Earnhardt said. "But I don't know if we would have done anything to it."
It marked the second-straight week Earnhardt suffered bad luck in a race that looked to be, at worst, a sure top-5 finish. He wound up 16th.
"I'm just real happy with the speed," Earnhardt said. "The car had a great engine. The car handled good. We did a good strategy, we just got bit by a caution there."
Stenhouse, despite watching the chances of his first win evaporate strictly due to bad luck, was also pleased with his 11th-place run that tied a career-best.
"We pitted under green and it really got us when the caution came out, but, all in all, I think we can take a lot of positives from this weekend," Stenhouse said. "We were fast in practice, fast in qualifying and made the car better through the race and that's what it's all about is making your car better throughout the race and I think we did that today."
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