James Small sat on the outside pit wall at Phoenix Raceway, trying to find the words to summarize getting beat off pit road and subsequently the NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Small paused before answering. The defeat was still raw after having the race win and championship in hand before the final round of pit stops.
“Yeah,” the Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief for Martin Truex Jr. then said with an incredulous laugh. “It wasn’t what we needed. If it went green there, I think we would have kept pulling away there. We had a great fight with the 11 [Denny Hamlin]; they had a strong car as well.
“We struggled a little bit on pit road all day long to be honest, especially compared to the Hendrick (Motorsports) cars. That 5 car crew (of Kyle Larson) has been strong all year, and that really won them the race. Martin did a great job on that last restart to get into second, and he gave a hell of a fight. But a little bit of dirty air just makes it so hard. We’ll try again next year, I guess.”
It was a cruel twist of fate after it seemed the race had swung in Truex and Small’s favor. Truex was on pit road for service when the caution flew for Anthony Alfredo’s crash with 65 laps to go. As the first championship contender to have made it to pit road before the caution, Truex cycled to the race lead over teammate Hamlin, the first driver off pit road.
“That worked perfectly for us; we won one there, then we lost it later,” Small said. “But yeah, that time (went) perfectly. We struggled a little bit. We got tight that run, and we thought as good as the car was in the long run, we’d force everybody else to short pit. And I thought on the other side when it went green, we would have a definite advantage.
“Either way, I think it would have worked out, but that caution at the end just killed us.”
When Truex had the lead, he and Hamlin broke free on the restart with 58 laps to go and drove away from third-place Chase Elliott. Larson was fourth having had a slow pit stop.
The final caution flew with 31 laps to go because of debris from David Starr’s car. Truex entered pit road as the leader and left third behind Larson and Hamlin.
“It was just a little bit messy, just not clean stops,” Small said of an overall abnormal day on pit road. “We just needed nice clean stops. We had a couple, but yeah, tough day.”
Truex led 72 laps and had a much stronger car on the long run than short-run speed. But even when he cycled to the lead and had clean air, Truex knew at some point there was likely to be a caution for a driver not in contention crashing “into the wall for no reason or something stupid.”
With the choose rule, Truex picked the outside lane behind Larson to restart fourth. Off the final restart, he shot to second and initially stayed with Larson but eventually started to fade.
“We had just a solid day,” Truex said. “We hung around right there where we needed to be, had a really good car, especially on the long runs early in the race. Track position was tough. It seemed like whoever was out front could drive away for 30, 40 laps, and then you’d kind of race from there on until the end of the run. It seemed like we were pretty good. Felt like all of us were really equally matched, honestly. We were all really good, really fast. Whoever got out front seemed to be good on the short run and then long run, it was kind of back and forth between everybody all day, it seemed like.
“So, we did everything we needed to. We got a lucky break there with the caution when we pitted and got us the lead, and we were driving off into the sunset. I don’t know what the caution was for, but just untimely caution for us and lost two spots on pit road, and that was the race.
“Twenty to go, you’re not going to pass one of the fastest cars out there. We just didn’t have the short-run speed all day, and then certainly, with 20 to go, it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air. I think if we would have had the lead, we could have held him off. But hindsight is 20/20, and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are. Really proud of our team and our season. Come in here once again as underdogs and had a shot at it, so that was fun.”