Crewman’s chase of tire changes race’s complexion

September 14th, 2009 by

HAMPTON, Ga. — The entire complexion of Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway appeared to change in an instant when, during green-flag pit stops on Lap 67, a tire escaped the pit box of Marcos Ambrose and started rolling toward the frontstretch straightaway.
The real surprise came when Jimmy Watts, the gas man for the No. 47 Toyota driven by Ambrose, chased the loose tire into the grassy median between the track and pit road — at one point coming within about 70 feet of actually going onto the track while cars were still churning around it at speeds approaching 200 mph.

A caution flag flew immediately, catching several cars on pit road and immediately putting them one lap down — or in the case of some that already were a lap down, it left them two laps down. At least partially as a result, at one point with less than a third of the race completed, only nine cars were left running on the lead lap and just 17 were within one lap of the leader.

Watts was suspended from competition for the remainder of the afternoon by NASCAR for “putting himself in harm’s way,” according to NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp. The teams adversely affected by the incident simply were left to deal with the unexpected setback as best they could.

“I just heard about it. I didn’t see it,” said Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Ford. “If there’s a tire in the infield, they’re probably going to throw the caution, too, eventually, and let everybody cycle through.

“Maybe he’s new. Maybe he’s hasn’t seen us drive, but we tend to wreck a lot. I wouldn’t want to be out in the middle of that grass.”

Kenseth refused to blame his afternoon struggles on the incident, however. In fact, he insisted that it may have helped him in the long run.
“I mean, it got us a lap down — but really it probably helped us because we ran terrible most of the day and finished 12th,” Kenseth said. “We ran a lot worse than that and it only put us one lap down because we short-pitted. I just passed [eventual winner] Kurt [Busch] before the caution. A lot of cars that would have beat us were two laps down, so, in a way, it probably helped us more than it hurt us.”

One of those cars may have been the No. 07 Chevrolet driven by Casey Mears, who had a fast car after an early gamble to take only two tires did not pay off and left him too loose, causing him to fall a lap down. Then he got caught on pit road during the tire incident and suddenly found himself two down.

“The guy ran across the grass and it just put everybody a lap down — us included, so then we were two down,” Mears said. “It just kind of takes you out of the race. We had a top-five car. It is too bad because we had a really good car.”
Mears ended up two laps off the winning pace set by Busch and had to settle for 16th.

Ryan Newman was another who ended up two laps down as a result of the caution caused by Watts’ pursuit of the loose tire. He eventually fell three laps off the pace and finished 22nd.

“It was unfortunate the way it worked,” Newman said. “You’ll see that and typically, for whatever reason, it happens here. It’s part of racing. You’ve got to work your way back.”

Pole-sitter Mark Martin ended up running over something later that gave him a flat tire and caused him to wreck, ruining what had been a good run. So his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, said he couldn’t blame the Ambrose crewman for anything.

“I don’t know what happened. I know I saw him running out there,” Gustafson said. “He’s trying to do the best job he can. I can sympathize with bad luck right now, so I’d say I shouldn’t be too critical of people who are having some bad luck of their own right now.”

He also explained how something so seemingly bizarre can easily happen.

“I think you really worry about that,” Gustafson said. “It’s the risk you run with green-flag pit stops. That’s the risk with short-pitting. There are a lot of things that come into play. They’re getting on pit road, getting off pit road. Green-flag pit stops are kind of hectic, and a lot of times crew chiefs may make late decisions that all the crew members aren’t ready for. That stuff happens on green-flag stops. I think you see that a lot; that’s where a lot of mistakes happen.
“It caught a lot of us, but I don’t know that it changed the race a whole lot. I don’t really think it did. I think the good cars were there. We were put at the tail-end of the lead lap, but within a couple of stops we were back up to fourth or fifth. Kurt was leading and [second-place finisher] Jeff [Gordon] was up there. All the guys who were there were still there at the end of the race. It was just something we had to work through.”

Steve Addington, crew chief for Kyle Busch, admitted the incident upset him at the time. But he essentially agreed with Gustafson that, in the end, it didn’t have much to do with the outcome.

“I’m not going to use that as an excuse. We didn’t have a great race car,” Addington said of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. “We made a lot of changes — a ton of changes — to it. We got it better toward the midway part of the race. But we had a bad day.

“That caution caught us and got us two laps down. And you can’t come back from two laps down unless you get your car good enough to get up there and pass the leaders and then get the Lucky Dog. We weren’t good enough to do something like that. We didn’t have the car to do it.”

Winning crew chief Pat Tryson was asked what he would have done if one of his crew members made such a mistake.

“I’d have to come off the top of the box and wrestle him [to the ground],” Tryson said. “We know better than that. I’m sure that person is going to learn. You just can’t do that because anything can happen. Somebody could get hurt.

“We were watching it pretty close.”

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