Smoky crash KOs Stewart-Haas teammates Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch
LOUDON, N.H. - With less than a lap left in the second stage of Sunday's ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch was struggling with the handling of his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, trying to survive the stage and bring his car to pit road for adjustments.
But as Busch rounded Turn 2 at the 1.058-mile track, all he could see was a thick cloud of smoke, reminiscent of the accident scenes in the film "Days of Thunder."
Ahead of Busch in the running order, in a fight for the 14th position, Austin Dillon's Chevrolet tapped and turned the No. 4 Ford of 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick. Harvick slid sideways, his tires screaming and billowing smoke.
Driving blind, Busch plowed into his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, with Jeffrey Earnhardt following into the melee. The nose of Busch's Ford crumpled as it slammed into the side of Harvick's Fusion, just behind the right front wheel well. The impact locked the cars together.
Harvick tried to drive away but burned out his reverse gear trying to separate his car from that of his teammate.
"Yeah, we couldn't get them unlocked from each other, for whatever reason," Harvick said after his car was towed to the garage. "The cars were locked together, so our Mobil 1 Ford was stuck, and we couldn't get her to back up anymore. I ripped reverse out of it trying to get it to go backwards and it was just stuck together."
Harvick finished 36th and collected two points for the race. Busch was credited with 37th and got one point for his efforts. Harvick, at least, had a cushion coming to New Hampshire. Busch was already on the bubble where advancement to the Round of 12 is concerned.
Consequently, for practical purposes Busch goes to next Sunday's Round of 16 finale at Dover International Speedway 15th in the standings and in a must-win position, unless a handful of drivers ahead of him have serious issues.
"I don't know what to say," a stunned Busch said after a visit to the infield care center. "It's tough when you're running where we were. We were just trying to limp it to the end of stage two and I heard, 'Car spinning off of (Turn) 2' in my ear. I saw smoke up ahead. A lot of times (the wrecked cars will) come back up (the track), and I tried to leave the high side or the low side and then, boom, as soon as the smoke cleared I'm looking at Harvick's door, my teammate.
"We're both running for the Playoffs, and it's a shame that the handling is off and we're both running where we were, but we were still going to fight all the way to the end, and now we don't have a chance. I cannot understand the bad luck that we're having."
STENHOUSE RALLIES TO KEEP PLAYOFF HOPES ALIVE
Doubtless Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s 15th-place finish will be a mere footnote to Sunday's ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
But for Stenhouse, recovery from early adversity could well mean the difference between advancing to the next round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and almost certain elimination.
For the second straight week, Stenhouse suffered an early brush with the outside wall, this time off Turn 4 on Lap 7. With the handling of his car hurt by the impact, Stenhouse eventually lost a lap to then-leader Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 136.
But Stenhouse fought back. After losing a battle for the "Lucky Dog" position to Denny Hamlin on Lap 188, Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattie opted to return to the lead lap with a wave-around under caution for a restart on Lap 268.
The risk was rewarded. Another quick caution on the restart lap put Stenhouse in position to pit for tires, and after the final restart on Lap 273, he improved to 15th.
That finish left him 12th in the standings heading to Dover and in a position to fight for a berth in the Round of 12.
"It was a struggle for us all weekend," Stenhouse said. "I told my guys I felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week. We just couldn't find speed, couldn't find the handle on the car. We made a lot of adjustments for today and (the car) was surprisingly a little bit better than we were in practice.
"I didn't think we were as capable of a car to finish where we did, but we did what we needed and had some good breaks and some good pit stops and ended up gaining some points. That was our goal, so I feel really good about that. I'd say we've had two sub-par weeks, and we're still in this thing, so we'll regroup and get focused and go to Dover."
TRUEX RECOVERS FROM FREAK ACCIDENT TO FINISH FIFTH
The Lap 150 wreck that knocked the cars of Playoff drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch out of Sunday's ISM Connect 300 was more than a minor inconvenience to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was a little more than a half-mile from picking up his second straight stage win when he saw the cloud of smoke from Harvick's tires, after the No. 4 slid sideways and collected the Ford of teammate Kurt Busch.
Trying to avoid the accident that blocked the track, Truex spun after contact with Jeffrey Earnhardt's Chevrolet. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was in close proximity, also spun during the chaos. Trying to extricate himself from the melee, Truex backed into Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevy. Driving forward, Earnhardt then clipped the left rear quarter panel of Truex's Toyota.
Thanks to the speed in his car and a late two-tire call, however, Truex salvaged a fifth-place finish, but it was hardly a satisfying result for the driver who led 109 of the first 149 laps after winning last week's Playoff opener at Chicagoland.
"I couldn't see anything, and I was just approaching the smoke and I'm like, 'Oh, no, where am I going to go?' I mean, literally I couldn't see anything, and my spotter said 'Go low.' By then, it was kind of too late and I was already like to the smoke and I couldn't commit. I just kind of like just kept slowing down and the 33 (Jeffrey Earnhardt) just came by me on the outside and hit me and spun me down through there, so just unfortunate, you know?
"We were coming to the green-white-checkered to win the second stage, which would have been another bonus point, which would be helpful and, of course, you know we had damage and had to fight from the back of the pack the rest of the day, so proud of our effort to run fifth after all that, but it definitely hurt our day."
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---