By Steve Mickey
Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, all forty-three crew chiefs sitting on top their war wagons found themselves having to become weathermen. Michigan has long been considered a fuel mileage track that puts added pressure on ever call made by the crew chief but on Sunday the pressure was taken to the next level as the crew chief also had to take in consideration when the rain would come.
The Quicken Loan 400 was scheduled to be a 200 lap event but with the Sunday morning radar showing pop up rain storms in the area, the focus for every crew chief and driver was to be up front when the 100th lap went off the board that would make the race official. The only problem was that there were three red flags for rain that lasted more than two hours before the race got to the halfway point. The rain never allowed the track to build up any rubber so not only was the crew chiefs having to make sure that their driver kept track position, they were also having to work on their cars at every stop to try and keep up with the track.
Fuel mileage was no longer being calculated for 200 laps instead it was focusing on that magical halfway point of 100 laps. Some crew chiefs brought their drivers on to pit road right before the green flag waved on a restart to top off their tanks in hopes that the added splash of fuel would be enough to make sure their driver would have what they needed to be on the track racing for the lead at the halfway point.
Still other crew chiefs elected to keep their drivers on the track to gain as much track position as possible. The strategy being used up and down pit road was so varied during one cycle of pit stops which usually takes place over a few laps that it was stretched out over a 20-lap period.
While the rain, fuel mileage and track position was playing heavy in every decision being made, the opportunity to “steal” a win in a shortened race and race your way into the Chase field was also in the mind of some crew chiefs. One of those crew chiefs was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Chris Heroy who guides the Target Chevrolet for Kyle Larson.
Larson is one of those drivers that has had some up and down finishes this season without a win but is still in the thick of the Chase by his position in the points at this time. A caution flag on lap 125 presented Heroy the opportunity to position his driver in a position to win with radar showing the rain bearing down on the track.
Heroy’s driver was sitting in tenth when that caution came out with a gas tank that only had a few gallons of gas as the skies continued to darken over the 2-mile track. It was at this point that Heroy made the decision to keep his driver out knowing that it would put him in a great position to capture the win if the rains came.
Larson gained ten spots by staying out as he started the race with the lead and was able to hold on to it as he drove by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the restart. He found himself battling Kurt Busch for the lead and it looked as if he was going to hang on for the win as the skies darkened at one end of the track. Unfortunately, his bid to become the latest race winner to advance to the Chase was three laps short as he had to come down on pit road for fuel.
Kurt Busch inherited the lead and went on for his second win in the rain shortened event of the year while Larson had to settle for a 17th place finish. It was not the kind of finish that Heroy and Larson was looking for but it was the kind of call that someday may put them in the Chase.
Event: Toyota/Save Mart 350
Track: Sonoma Raceway (1.99 mile Road Course with 10 turns)
Date: June 28, 3:00 PM
TV: FOX Sports 1
Defending Champion: Carl Edwards