|PHOTO: Michelle, @robbygordonfan7|
by Brock Beard
Carson Hocevar scored the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 presented by TicketSmarter at the World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway) when his #7 Schluter Systems Chevrolet crashed after 91 of 243 laps.
The finish came in Hocevar’s series debut. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 45th for the #7, the 650th from a crash, and the 840th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 54th for the #7, the 1,336th from a crash, and the 1,891st for Chevrolet.
While Hocevar’s star has steadily been on the rise since 2020, what has taken place since he was last featured here has turned him into one of NASCAR’s most anticipated talents. At COTA on March 25th, Hocevar was a late substitution for Blaine Perkins at SS-Green Light Racing, where his day ended early with transmission issues. Just one week later, Hocevar scored his first Truck Series victory after contact with a dominant Nick Sanchez. This preceded his originally scheduled XFINITY debut for Dover with Spire Motorsports, a run delayed by rain to Darlington, where he finished 6th. Hocevar and the #77 returned last Monday night in Charlotte, where he again impressed by taking 8th.
Earlier that Monday, the Coca-Cola 600 featured a controversial accident where Chase Elliott deliberately turned left into the right-rear of Denny Hamlin, who had pinched Elliott into the outside wall. NASCAR handed Elliott a suspension on Monday, which would ordinarily have opened the door for Hendrick Motorsports’ “super sub” Josh Berry. But with Berry and the XFINITY Series running in Portland for the upcoming St. Louis weekend at Gateway, another plan had to be devised. In it, Corey LaJoie would take the wheel of the #9, leaving his #7 Spire Motorsports entry open for Carson Hocevar. Much like his XFINITY debut at COTA, the circumstances were unexpected. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the only similarity.
|Hocevar pulls onto pit road with a fire in the right-front.|
SCREENSHOT: NASCAR Drive
Securing the 36th and final starting spot was J.J. Yeley, who ran 32nd in practice before issues in qualifying resulted in the slowest lap in qualifying at just over 34 seconds. Joining Yeley in the back were two other drivers docked for unapproved adjustments: 31st-place Erik Jones in the #43 Bommarito.com Chevrolet and 35th-place Gray Gaulding, making his first Cup start since 2020 in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Panini America Ford. Not docked was LaJoie, who scrubbed the wall in Turn 4 on his qualifying lap.
When the race started, Gaulding held the last spot on Lap 2, 4.252 seconds back of the lead and 0.274 back of new 35th-place runner Ty Dillon in the #77 Nations Guard Chevrolet. Heading into Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 2, the caution fell as Tyler Reddick spun his #45 McDonald’s Toyota after contact from Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s #47 NOS Energy Drink Chevrolet. Reddick avoided contact, and was soon joined on pit road by Corey LaJoie, who accidentally tripped the “kill switch” shifting to fourth gear just before the incident. Reddick took last on Lap 3 with LaJoie now 35th. Then came word of a lightning strike four miles from the track, and subsequent strikes led to a nearly two-hour red flag.
When drivers were finally called back to their cars, there was some delay in Gaulding’s team getting the window net fastened. As the field rolled off to complete the first lap under caution, Reddick remained last, credited with an over 6,000 second lap due to the delay. Scoring reset on the Lap 9 restart to show Reddick 3.532 seconds back of the lead. The next time by, Reddick had gained a few spots, leaving Ty Dillon in last but side-by-side with Gaulding by just 0.040 second at the stripe. Dillon cleared Gaulding the next time by, and Gaulding’s crew spent the rest of Stage 1 talking him through his line.
While Gaulding struggled with a tight condition, the team told him to change his arc in Turns 1 and 2, then turned his attention to Turns 3 and 4. Through this, Gaulding remained within a second of the now 35th-place B.J. McLeod in the #78 Circle B Diecast Chevrolet. Between Laps 27 and 30, Gaulding cut the deficit from 0.812 second to just 0.564. McLeod then opened it back to 0.907 on Lap 34, just two circuits before the leaders caught the pair. Gaulding went a lap down on the 36th circuit, followed two laps later by McLeod. By then, Gaulding’s team told him to slow more going into Turn 1 so he’d turn better in the middle.
|Hocevar's car is towed to the garage.|
PHOTO: Michelle, @robbygordonfan7
The next driver to find trouble was Brad Keselowski, who during practice shredded a left-rear tire on his #6 Kings Hawaiian Ford. On Lap 44, Keselowski was noticeably off the pace by, when he’d not only lost a lap but dropped to 34th. He made it to the end of Stage 1 without losing another spot, but the crew looking under the hood dropped him to last on Lap 51. He asked his crew if the issue was a spring, but the crew focused on the spark plugs. He returned to the track under yellow, only to find his car still ran rough. He stayed clear of traffic on the Lap 54 restart, quickly followed by a caution for Michael McDowell’s spin in the #34 Fr8Auctions.com Ford. Keselowski pitted once more, saying the “Lambda-R” reading on his digital dash was still flashing a warning. Back in the pits, he shut off the engine and lost another lap, but both driver and crew realized the engine issue was something internal that couldn’t be fixed. Running two laps down with a flat-sounding engine, Keselowski looked to run as long as he could.
Meanwhile, Carson Hocevar was once again turning heads. With LaJoie still struggling around 31st place, Hocevar climbed to 20th on Lap 61, then 16th by Lap 89. He was still running in the spot on Lap 91 when, coming into Turn 1, the right-front brake rotor exploded. “One in the wall in 1 and 2, caution’s out, caution’s out - 7 car,” radioed Keselowski’s spotter. Hocevar pulled the car to the right, keeping him in the outside wall before he limped his way back to pit road under caution. After extinguishing a fire in the right-front, Hocevar’s team talked about going behind the wall to replace the brake rotor, but of course this would end their race under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” After trying to pull behind the wall, a wrecker was summoned to tow the #7 to their garage stall.
“It was fun while it lasted,” said Hocevar. “Probably my fault for using them (brakes) too much.” The crew noted he was using them a lot, but not to the point of failure. Hocevar took last from Keselowski on Lap 96, making Hocevar perhaps the first driver to finish last in both his XFINITY and Cup debut in the same year.
|Briscoe returns from his radiator repair, 50 laps down.|
PHOTO: Michelle, @robbygordonfan7
When Hocevar’s brake rotor exploded, debris was picked up by the splitter of Martin Truex, Jr.’s #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota and also punctured the radiator of Chase Briscoe’s #14 Ford Performance Racing School Ford. Briscoe’s damage sent him behind the wall for 50 laps, ultimately returning from the 35th spot under the Stage 2 caution on Lap 142. Briscoe ultimately finished 34th, passing Tyler Reddick, who on Lap 175 suffered the same brake failure as Hocevar in the same spot, ending his run and leaving the #45 in 35th place.
Briscoe fell another five laps short of catching still another brake failure victim entering Turn 1. Noah Gragson’s #42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet suffered the day’s hardest hit in Turn 1, slamming the wall with the driver’s side. Gragson walked away, his car transferred to a flat bad in front of the infield stage for the post-race Dierks Bentley concert. Rounding out the group was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 NOS Energy Drink Chevrolet was pinned against the Turn 1 wall after contact from Austin Cindric sent Austin Dillon into Stenhouse’s side. Dillon dropped out four laps later, leaving him 31st.
*Spire Motorsports’ #7 team has now finished last in both Cup races at Gateway. Last year, Corey LaJoie’s run in the #7 Built.com Chevrolet ended with a blown engine after 72 laps.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #7-Carson Hocevar / 91 laps / crash
35) #45-Tyler Reddick / 174 laps / crash
34) #14-Chase Brisoe / 193 laps / running
33) #42-Noah Gragson / 197 laps / crash
32) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 219 laps / crash
2023 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Spire Motorsports (4)
2nd) Legacy Motor Club, Live Fast Motorsports, Penske Racing, Rick Ware Racing (2)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, Richard Childress Racing (1)
2023 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (10)
2nd) Ford (4)
3rd) Toyota (1)
2023 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP