Race Weekend Central

Monday Morning Pit Box: Michael McDowell Gamble Almost Leads to 2nd Straight NASCAR Cup Series Upset

There wasn’t much creativity when it came down to the final round of NASCAR Cup Series pit stops Sunday afternoon (Feb. 26) at Auto Club Speedway. The headsets of crew chiefs were unified around two words, “four tires,” as the Pala Casino 400 barreled toward its conclusion with a long green flag run in the final stage.

As the aging track surface ground up tires, it would have been a shock to see a two-tire call made by anyone running Auto Club Speedway’s 2-mile oval. The final round of stops, then, became all about executing the typical four tires and fuel.

It’s where Kyle Busch‘s pit crew came into play, coming through in the clutch for their driver. We’ve seen it with Busch and others through the years: a stellar run toward the checkered flag can be spoiled by something going wrong on pit road, either through a penalty or lack of execution.

Neither of those occurred and the stop with 33 laps to go, as many of the leaders pitted under green, put Busch in prime position to finish off the late run to the checkered flag and race victory. Joey Logano pitted slightly earlier, head wrench Paul Wolfe calling his shot, but didn’t have enough of a head start to gain ground.

Front Row Motorsports, though, chose to lay it all on the line down the stretch, a last-ditch effort to pull an upset that ultimately came up short.

McDowell’s Team Lays It On the Line With a Gamble

There’s an old saying that goes, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Michael McDowell and his new crew chief, Travis Peterson, sure took one, rolling the dice in the late going. With many leaders opting to pit with around 35 laps remaining, McDowell’s team took a chance and attempted to go the distance on fuel.

Who could blame them? Had McDowell pulled a rabbit out of his hat by staying out, he and rookie Noah Gragson may have been alone on the lead lap depending on when a caution came out. And for McDowell, a win would have likely clinched a postseason berth, allowing him to run the next 24 races like his team is playing with house money.

In the end, it didn’t net a victory, McDowell passed by Busch with 21 laps to go.

The gamble may have failed, but it’s not one to fault the No. 34 team for taking. Odds are good it won’t be the last time this year a smaller team gets aggressive, the decision netting McDowell an 18th-place result.

Preparation Keys Chastain’s Statement

Ross Chastain may not have won Sunday, but Trackhouse Racing Team sent a strong message 2022 was no fluke. Chastain won the first two stages and ran third, his fifth top-five result in his last six Cup starts dating back to last year.

That performance didn’t come out of thin air. It was very clear this showing started within the Trackhouse shop, weather eliminating practice time over the course of the weekend. It meant teams learning the right things through simulations and other R&D reaped the rewards during Sunday’s main event.

The No. 1 was absolutely in that group along with teammate Daniel Suarez (fourth), just the third time in Trackhouse history they placed both full-time cars within the top five.

Tire Troubles Trip Up Martin Truex Jr.’s Day

There’s little crew chief James Small could have done for Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 19 Toyota in the moment. But he earned a dubious distinction Sunday at Auto Club after Small’s crew failed to secure all four wheels during an early caution-flag stop.

That led to Truex becoming the first driver of 2023 to lose a wheel, top-five speed wiped out by the new two-lap penalty rule for any driver whose Goodyear breaks loose on the racetrack.

Two crew members will also be suspended for the next two weeks, making the rest of the West Coast swing for this group a rough road.

To their credit, Truex, Small and the No. 19 Toyota team used some free passes to get back on the lead lap, rallying their way forward to 11th by the finish. But their victory at the LA Coliseum to start off the year sure seems like a lifetime ago.

See also
Thinkin' Out Loud: NASCAR, Is It Too Late to Reconsider About Auto Club?

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Tom B

Pleeezze, this gamble didn’t have a chance!

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